By Brian Lester
El Paso is right where most expected the Rhinos to be at this time of the year – in the Thorne Cup finals playing for the right to win another Western States Hockey League championship.
The reigning league and United Hockey Union national champions punched a ticket to the final series with a thrilling 3-2 win over Ogden on March 28. David Brancik scored the game-winner with a little under two minutes left in regulation to wrap up the hard-fought semifinal series against the Mustangs.
Marek Langhammer and Gavin Abbott also scored goals for the Rhinos, who also got a stellar performance from goalie Adam Vay, who faced a total of 77 shots over the weekend and only allowed three goals.
“We played extremely well in the series,” said El Paso head coach Cory Herman. “We have things we can improve on, but I thought we worked really hard against a great Ogden team. We made plays when we needed to make them.”
The Rhinos will face the Steelheads beginning April 10 in a best-of-five series that will feature, arguably, the two best franchises in the WSHL.
“They are a very skilled team and well coached,” Herman said. “They are playing really good hockey right now and we are going to have to play our best to beat them.”
El Paso won the series opener against the Mustangs by a 2-1 score, with Abbott scoring five minutes into the third period to help seal the deal. It was the first postseason goal for Abbott. Jonah Pearson also scored in the victory.
The Rhinos entered the year with only a couple of players back from last year’s national championship run. But they didn’t miss a beat, coming together at the right time and forging the type of chemistry a team needs to contend for a championship.
“It’s been a fun year,” Herman said. “We basically had a brand new team but everyone has been on the same page. We’ve continued to improve all season and we’re confident we can keep it going.”
Although winning a league and national title isn’t easy, Herman is confident this team has the ability to accomplish both goals. For now, the focus is on the Steelheads.
“We have to keep it simple,” Herman said. “As long as we stick to the game plan and play hard, we’ll have a chance to compete for a championship.”
Steelheads excited for fifth Thorne Cup final
By Brian Lester
Idaho assistant head coach Trent Ritchie knew the Jr. Steelheads would have their hands full in a Western States Hockey League semifinal playoff series against Fresno.
But Idaho was ready for the challenge, winning both games against the Monsters. The Steelheads rolled to a 5-1 win in the opener and earned a 3-1 win in the finale, punching a ticket to the Thorne Cup championship series against reigning league and national champion El Paso.
The Steelheads won three straight from 2011 to 2013 before the Rhinos won last year.
“Fresno is a very good hockey team. They play hard and play physical and with a lot of intensity,” Ritchie said. “We knew we had to match their style of play and come out with the same intensity they played with. I thought our guys did a good job of that and we came out on top.”
In the series finale, Idaho stormed in front 3-0 and never looked back. Oleg Losev, Victor Carlsson and Macky Power all scored for the Steelheads while Tyler Hough racked up 28 saves.
In the opening game of the series, Arturs Sevcenko paved the way as he scored two goals and dished out an assist. Kyle Kruenegel, Johannes Yucel and Power also scored for Idaho in the win. Hough tallied 20 saves in the victory.
“I think one of our biggest strengths is our depth,” Ritchie said. “Whether it’s been call-ups or injuries, we’ve always had someone step up and fill the void. Our depth has played a big part in our success.”
Now comes the challenge of facing off against El Paso, a team that has established itself as one of the best in the WSHL.
“We’ve developed a good rivalry with them,” Ritchie said. “They are a tough team and will play physical and with intensity, a lot like Fresno did. We have to match it just like we did in the last series.”
Ritchie is confident the Steelheads can rise to the occasion as they take aim at a title.
“We’re focused this week and we know we have to play our best,” Ritchie said. “It should be a great series. Our guys are ready to compete for a championship.”
Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:
Second half propels Ontario Avalanche uphill in Western Division
Casper Coyotes fight to maintain first in division
Deep Long Beach Bombers squad moves up in division