Finally, on their fifth straight day of hockey, the El Paso Rhinos ran out of gas.
Unfortunately, much like the Butler Bulldogs the night before, the Rhinos came up short in the national championship game, losing, 5-1, to the hard-skating Helena Bighorn in the Tier III Junior A USA Hockey National Championship Tournament in Rochester, MN.
Unlike Butler, El Paso has lots of young talent on its roster – players who have learned what it takes to make a run in the national tournament, many of them already committing to return next season.
An amazing semifinal performance Monday by goaltender Trent Casper propelled the Rhinos into the championship. Casper stopped 44-of-45 Idaho Steelheads shots and El Paso turned the tables on the team that had just beaten them for the Western States Hockey League’s Thorne Cup, 2-1.
But Casper and his teammates were spent. The physicality which defined Monday’s win left little in the tank for Tuesday’s loss.
What took Idaho the better part of three periods to do took the Bighorn a mere 54 seconds – score a goal on Casper.
Ryan Parkhouse beat Casper for the opening-minute score, pouncing on a rebound.
Parkhouse hooked up again on the power play just over 10 minutes later and the Rhinos found themselves down, 2-0.
Frankie Posillico halved the Bighorn’s lead with just 52 seconds left in the first period, but El Paso was starved for offense, having been outshot, 17-4.
The Rhinos were able to thwart seven of eight Idaho power plays Monday, but Tuesday tired legs led to bad penalties, again leaving Casper alone to deal with hungry Helena.
Michael Sullivan scored another early goal at 3:05 of the second and Nolan Grauer beat Casper on a delayed-penalty goal at 14:48.
Sullivan notched his brace on a third Helena goal with the man advantage at 2:11 of the third period.
Helena, the NORPAC league champions, outshot El Paso, 42-22, in the game, blistering the Rhinos’ defense throughout.
Meanwhile, after scoring eight power play goals in its prior four games at Nationals, El Paso’s special teams offense went begging, as the Rhinos finished 0-for-3 with the extra attacker.
The result caps a rollercoaster season for El Paso. With his young lineup, head coach Cory Herman and his staff fought through some uncharacteristic early losses.
The Rhinos didn’t lead their division until the final three weeks of the regular season; thus, El Paso’s run at Nationals was a pleasant surprise.
Just a game short of its goal.
The El Paso Hockey Association will keep the Events Center rink open into summer for public skating and private lessons in both hockey and figure skating before melting it down and getting ready for next season. For information on ice times, lessons and season tickets for the 2011-2012 season, contact the El Paso Rhinos front office at 915/479-PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com