Round one of the 2011-2012 Western States Hockey League playoffs is in the books and what a good one it was! Every series saw its fair share of action, as three went to a deciding third game, with only one "underdog" ringing victorious, as the Valencia Flyers upended the San Diego Gulls out west.
The field is now narrowed down to just six teams who will battle for one of the three spots in the Thorne Cup at the end of the month.
MID-WEST DIVISION MATCHUPS
# 1: El Paso Rhinos (35-9-2 in regular season) hosting #4: New Mexico Renegades (18-26-2)
The El Paso Rhinos are the only team in the playoffs that are guaranteed a spot in the Thorne Cup, as they will host the tournament in its inaugural year.
After a solid showing in a rough series with New Mexico, it looks as though Head Coach Cory Herman never informed his squad of the free ride.
The Rhinos come out strong in the opening game on Friday evening and took it to the Renegades, blowing them out by a score of 6-0.
El Paso dominated the game in every facet; scoring two goals in each period, with six different players finding twine. Special teams was on point as well, as three of the six goals were scored while on the power play and two more were scored a man short.
Trent Caspar got the shutout win in net for the Brahmas, stopping all 16 shots he faced, while Eric Messer did not fare as well at the other end, facing 52 shots and stopping 46 in the loss.
After a blowout loss in the opening game of a series, against a team that has dominated you for years, you'd think the Renegades would have just packed it in and taken the beating in game two; you would have thought very wrong.
A completely different looking New Mexico team took the ice on Saturday night and surprisingly forced a third game, with a 6-4 victory.
With the score tied at three after 40 minutes of play, the Renegades got goals from Jon Voyles and Fredrik Svantesson early in the third and were able to hold on late for the win, despite being outshot 37-21 for the game.
Two veterans, in Matt Uvodich and the aforementioned Jon Voyles, each scored twice for the Renegades and backup Joey MacConnell stopped 33 of the 37 shots he faced in the victory.
The Rhinos were led by leading-scorer Michael Rivera and his two assists but goaltender Trent Caspar could not replicate his success from the previous night and allowed six goals on just 21 shots.
In a game three, anything can happen, especially if the "underdogs" find a way to get on the board first. The Rhinos never let New Mexico get a sniff at the game however, getting another shutout victory and taking the series with a 5-0 win.
After a scoreless first period, the Rhinos turned it up in the second and put four past MacConnell, two of which coming shorthanded and two coming off the stick of forward David Nelson.
Matthew Pietrzykowski would add another in the third for good measure, as Cory Herman showed faith in his number one goaltender, starting Caspar again, who did not disappoint, stopping all 24 shots he faced and picking up his second shutout of the series.
The Renegades showed their true colors in this series and played the Rhinos better than anyone could have hoped. Michael Gershon has this program headed in the right direction and they should be a force in the Mid-West Division for years to come.
The El Paso Rhinos know how to win in the playoffs and that may have been the difference in the series. All four lines found the net and the defense was stifling, allowing just 61 shots over three games and anything that got through to goaltender Trent Caspar, was usually turned away with ease.
The Rhinos get to stay at home again this weekend, where they will have a bit tougher of a matchup against the Dallas Ice Jets. Regardless of who wins, both teams will be making an appearance in the Thorne Cup.
#2: Dallas Ice Jets (29-12-5) hosting #3: Texas Brahmas (28-17-1)
What many thought would be one of the most exciting series' of the weekend, did not fail to disappoint, as two of the top teams from the Lone Star State put on a show in Grapevine, Texas over the weekend.
The Dallas Ice Jets continued an exceptional inaugural season with an exhilarating 2-1 series victory over the rival Texas Brahmas and are now guaranteed of a spot in the Thorne Cup, where they have proven they can play with anybody.
Game one was the tightest of the series, as both teams made few mistakes in an energy-charged contest.
After two periods of play, nothing had been solved, as both teams failed to get on the board in the first 40 minutes of play and shots were very close.
The game remained scoreless until very late in regulation, when Johnny Henson put the Ice Jets ahead with a goal scored with just 3:03 left in the third.
Austin Azurdia would add an empty-netter to seal the deal late, as the Ice Jets took game one of the series.
Michael Baldwin got the shutout win for the Ice Jets, playing well as he has all year and turning aside all 28 shots he faced.
Joakim Moritz was solid at the other end for the Brahmas, allowing just one goal on 34 shots but still taking the loss.
The opening game was so tight, neither team converted on a combined 13 power play opportunities.
The next night, the two teams played to a draw after the first period once again.
The difference in game two however, was that the Brahmas' offense awoke and scored the only two goals in the period.
Brett Jacobson and Grady Graham each tallied while on the power play, giving the Brahmas a two goal lead heading into the final period of regulation.
Quade Hamlin scored the third Brahmas' power play goal of the night 1:17 into the third, before Dallas got on the board with a power play goal of their own by Christian Elsborg with 7:14 left.
Grady Graham's second of the game, with 1:33 left before the buzzer, gave the Brahmas the 4-1 victory in a huge game two.
Backup Zane Sampson took the win for Texas, stopping 19 of the 20 shots he faced and leaving Head Coach Jeremy Law with a tough decision heading into game three.
Baldwin allowed four goals on 26 Texas shots while taking the loss for the Ice Jets.
Game three was just as tight as the previous two early on, until the Ice Jets exploded and ran away with a 9-2 win.
Jordan Gnatowsky's goal 6:42 into the second period tied the game at two for the Brahmas, as it looked as though it would come down to the wire once more.
Dallas then erupted for four goals before the end of the period and tacked on three in the third, while shutting down the Brahmas' offense in an unpredictable outburst.
Jefferson Wright and Chace Jackson each scored twice and Baldwin took the win in net, stopping 20 of 22.
Joakim Moritz got the start for Law and didn't produce, pulled after allowing the fifth goal of the game and giving way to Zane Sampson, who didn't do much better.
The difference in the series may have been the depth that the Ice Jets possess. They roll four lines over all game long and they always seem to be fresh. Dallas was also able to slow down the top guys from Texas, including Connor Tamai and Kevin Filthaut, two of the top players in the entire league.
The Brahmas played tough and were only truly outplayed in game three. They had a solid season and who knows where they would be if their current roster had been in tact all season.
The Ice Jets continue to be the fairytale story of the WSHL. They have won and won a ton in just their first season in the league and don't show any signs of stopping soon. They are now guaranteed a spot in the Thorne Cup, regardless of their series outcome against El Paso this weekend, which should be another great one.
MOUNTAIN DIVISON MATCHUPS
#1: Idaho Jr. Steelheads (42-2-2) hosting #4: Ogden Mustangs (13-29-3)
In the most predictable series of the weekend, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads carried their league-best 26 game win streak into a home playoff showdown with the first-year Ogden Mustangs.
The odds were stacked against Ogden, who finished better than only the Park City Moose in their inaugural season in the league but the Mustangs had taken Idaho to extra time earlier in the season. The Jr. Steelheads were the only team in the league to reach perfection at home in the regular season, going 21-0-0 and that record remains pristine after a two-game sweep of the Mustangs.
In game one, Idaho outshot Ogden 24-2 in the first period and held a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Just 11:25 into period two, it was 5-0 Idaho after Stefan Brucato finished off his hat-trick and the route was on.
Forward Matt Sanford also picked up three goals and Kody Rodriguez broke the shutout 27 seconds into the third period for Ogden, who fell 9-1.
Goaltender Jordyn Kaufer continued his near-perfect record and stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced in the win.
In game two, the Mustangs put together a surprise attack and led 3-1 after the first, thanks to goals by Kody Rodriguez, Brenden Kelso and Lukas Moudry.
The upset was quickly foiled over the final two periods however, as Idaho scored six straight and went on to the 9-4 win.
Nine different Idaho players enjoyed multiple point nights in the series clinching win, with Vance Bridgeman's goal and two assists leading the way.
Josh Benton got the start in net for Head Coach John Olver and struggled in the first but rebounded to get the win, allowing four goals on 26 shots.
Ogden fought hard, especially in game two but they just did not have the firepower in season one to hang with Idaho. They are running a first-class organization out there however and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them contend next season.
Idaho has now won 28 straight... Do you really want me to say anything more?
This team is as good as it gets right now and the way they're playing, opponents will have to play a perfect 60 minutes to beat them.
#2: Boulder Bison (33-10-3) hosting #3: Cheyenne Stampede (22-10-4)
Another 2/3 matchup looked like a tight series on paper. That was about the only place the series was tight however, as Boulder shook off some recent rust and took care of a new-look Cheyenne Stampede squad in two games.
In game one, Boulder led 2-1 after the first period thanks to goals by Taylor Porrier and Will Neff.
Over the final two periods, Boulder pulled away as Porrier added two more and Dante Ruscitti put home one of his own in a 5-1 opening game victory.
The Bison outshot Cheyenne 31-21 and also shutdown the Stampede power play, allowing just one goal over seven chances.
Brent Cullaton's top line of Taylor Porrier, Chris Guidotti and Ryan Gauthier combined for nine points on the night, with Porrier's four leading the charge.
Chris Komma got the start in net, which was somewhat of a mystery coming into the series and left little doubt, allowing one goal on 21 shots in the win.
In game two, Boulder quickly extinguished any hopes the Stampede may have had of stealing a game, as the Bison led 4-0 after the first period.
Heath Lantz' goal 8:59 into the second period was the only thing that kept Cheyenne from getting blanked, as Boulder cruised to a 7-1 victory and series sweep.
The top line of Boulder was again the catalyst, as the three combined for 9 points once again, this time Ryan Gauthier leading with four points.
The second line of Dylan Meier, Mathieu Gauthier-Cote and Will Neff also put Cheyenne on their heels all night, picking up a combined 9 points as well, proving that Boulder is more than a one-line team.
Komma got the start in net again and allowed one goal on 16 shots faced.
Cheyenne's first season in the league ended without a whimper, as they were pushed around over 120 minutes of hockey and big names like Bobby Watson, Carl Graf and Brad McIntosh were absolute non-factors.
They have a lot to build on however and will contend in the Mountain Division for a while.
A lot of questions surrounded Boulder coming into the weekend and most were answered. They had struggled late in the regular season but proved they are one of the top teams in the league and have the offense to play with anyone.
They have not played well against Idaho this season, their first round opponent, but seem to be playing some of their best hockey of the year at the right time; now.
WESTERN DIVISION MATCHUPS
#1: Fresno Monsters (43-2-1) hosting #4: Arizona Redhawks (22-20-4)
The Fresno Monsters have followed up their last two very successful regular seasons by flaring out in the playoffs against lower-seeded teams.
A weekend matchup against the injury-depleted Arizona Redhawks proved to be just the right medicine to get the momentum going, as the Monsters move on after winning the first two games of the series.
Game one was a lot closer than Monsters' Head Coach Bryce Dale would have liked, as the pesky Redhawks were able to stick around the entire game.
Marc Haaf and Zach Alvarez paced Fresno to a 2-1 lead after one period of play, before Kyle Pavlack's goal just 15 seconds into the middle frame knotted the game up for Arizona.
2:47 into the third, Gunner White gave Fresno the lead back, as the fourth line chipped in for the Monsters.
Ever resilient, Arizona tied the game up just about three minutes later, as Chance Taylor buried one while on the power play.
Everything was pointing toward overtime until veteran forward Jason Beisinger put one home with just 20 seconds left before the buzzer, with assists from the aforementioned Haaf and leading-scorer Nick McKee.
A win is a win but I'm sure Fresno would have liked it to be a bit easier in game one, as even with a loss the Redhawks may have been able to gain some momentum from the contest.
Marcus Harbison took the win in net for Fresno, stopping 21 of the 24 shots he saw, while Andrew Barletta of Arizona was the hard-luck loser, allowing four goals on 37 shots.
It was rather apparent early in game two that Arizona did not carry any momentum over, as the Monsters led 3-0 after 20 minutes of play after outshooting the visitors 18-6.
Beisinger struck first, while Rob Kolander and Justin Plate each added one of their own.
Ethan Carlson's goal just over halfway thru the second period gave Fresno the 4-0 lead, which they'd hold onto and sweep the series.
Things got chippy late, as the Redhawks' Evan Alexius left the bench during an altercation but Fresno luckily did not get hit with a game misconduct, which would have carried over to round two.
Rookie Tom McGuckin continued what I would deem a "Calder-like" first year in the league, stopping all 17 shots he faced in the win.
Barletta, who would have to be the Redhawks' M.V.P. took the loss again, allowing four goals on 39 shots.
The Redhawks finished up their most successful season in franchise history with a predictable result, as they now drop to 0-21-0 all-time against the high-powered Monsters.
Many good things happened this year for Robbie Powell and Co. however and things are only looking up for the new power in the desert.
Fresno did not win by the margin many would have expected but in the post-season, you take them as you can get them.
They're still flying high and will play host to the Valencia Flyers this weekend, another team that has failed to best the Monsters in 18 all-time meetings.
#2: San Diego Gulls (24-17-5) hosting #3: Valencia Flyers (23-17-6)
The only true "upset" of the weekend took place down south, as the Valencia Flyers, who finished just one point back of their first-round opponent, ousted the Gulls in three tightly contested games.
The series win was only an upset in terms of standing, as the Flyers picked up top players late in the season and had won the last three in-a-row against San Diego coming into the weekend showdown.
In game one, Gulls' Head Coach Craig Carlyle surprisingly chose to start backup Reed Kinsey in net, resting normal starter Brian Walters for whatever reason. In five previous starts against Valencia, Walters held a record of 3-2-0.
Kinsey was strong early however, stopping all six shots he faced in the opening period as San Diego led 1-0 behind a Tomas Busek power play marker.
J.P. Bouchard would score the only goal for either team in the second period, as the Flyers' forward's first of three on the night came from Ray Wilson and Ryan Smith.
5:41 into the third, Bouchard scored while shorthanded to give Valencia their first lead of the weekend.
Defenseman Weston Cydell's goal just under two minutes later would tie the game once more however.
With 2:33 left in regulation, Bouchard would complete his first hat trick as a Flyer and Austin Ehrlich put the game on ice with a breakaway goal as the buzzer went off, as the Flyers pulled out the 4-2 win.
Veteran Stephen Palmer took the win in net for the Flyers, stopping 19 of the 21 shots he faced while Kinsey allowed four goals on 26 shots.
The next night, things got even tighter, as two of the top defenses in the league were on display.
Tomas Busek scored his second goal in as many nights, which proved to be all the Gulls needed as Brian Walters backstopped them to a 1-0 victory, forcing a third game.
Shots were 36-34 in favor of San Diego, with most shots coming from outside of the dots, making it easier on the two top goaltenders.
In game three, San Diego took a 1-0 lead into the third period, thanks to a rare penalty shot goal by you guessed it; Tomas Busek.
Rookies were the story of the game for the Flyers, who got three goals in the third, all scored by rookie forwards and held on for a 3-1 win and series victory.
Hunter Jensen scored 4:20 into the third to tie the game at one, before Ray Wilson's first of the post-season gave the Flyers their first lead of the contest and the league-leader in rookie goal scoring on the regular season, Austin Ehrlich, clinched the win with an empty-netter two seconds before the game concluded.
Stephen Palmer allowed just the penalty shot goal and took the win while stopping 27 of the 28 Gulls' shots he faced.
Brian Walters was stamped with the loss for San Diego, as the Vermont native allowed two goals on 36 shots.
The Gulls looked like one of the top teams in the league early in the regular season but slowed down considerably down the stretch. They'll lose some of their top players but Carlyle will pull in top talent and keep their playoff streak running.
The Valencia Flyers are the surprise of the post-season thus far.
First-year Head Coach Jocelyn Langlois has come into town and turned the organization around, while guiding his team to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-2009 season and now into the second round for only the second time in franchise history.
They have gotten stronger as the year has gone on, as goaltender Stephen Palmer has really solidified his game and a solid core combined with a few skilled rookies has pushed them into what should be a great series with Fresno.
The Flyers were also able to win the series, even though a few of their top players were shutdown over the weekend.
The second leading scorer in the entire league in the regular season, Eddie Keshishian, was held without a point on the weekend. As was leading assist man Sam Khongmuk, the red-hot Sebastien Beauregard and newly-acquired Bryan Fiol.
If those guys can get it going in round two, they have a real chance of knocking off the Monsters, who they finished 0-4-2 against in the regular season.
THREE STARS OF THE WEEK
<!1-Taylor Porrier-Forward (Boulder Bison)- When you think of the Boulder offense, you more than likely think of league leading-scorer Chris Guidotti. Guidotti had a strong weekend in the Bison' sweep of Cheyenne but linemate Taylor Porrier was even better. The "sniper" of the line picked up four goals and three assists in just two games over the weekend, as his line combined for an astounding 18 in the same span.
2.Trent Caspar-Goaltender (El Paso Rhinos)- The El Paso Rhinos needed three games to take down the New Mexico Renegades and a big reason for their two wins was the success of goaltender Trent Caspar. The veteran netminder struggled in game two but surrounded that 6-4 loss by shutting out the Renegades twice
3. J.P. Bouchard-Forward (Valencia Flyers)- With the "studs" on the Valencia roster failing to put the puck in the net, agitator J.P. Bouchard picked a perfect weekend to bust out the offense. The first-year forward picked up his first hat-trick of the season in a game one win and assisted on the game-winning goal in the decisive third game.
So the second round playoff matches are set, as El Paso will host the Dallas Ice Jets (both teams move on regardless), Idaho hosts Boulder and Valencia travels to Fresno.
All three are sure to be outstanding displays of hockey and I wouldn't be surprised to see any of these six teams eventually win the Thorne Cup.
Check back for my round two playoff preview on Wednesday evening!