After an exciting opening weekend to the 2012 Western States Hockey League post-season, it was hard to imagine anything more exhilarating taking place in round two. With the exception of the Dallas/El Paso series, the higher seed dominated the other two matchups throughout the regular season, leading many to believe the playoffs would be no different for Fresno and Idaho, respectively.
In what has been one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory, more surprises were in store, as the matchup thought to be the tightest, ended up in an El Paso sweep, while the other two series' went to a decisive third game.
Boulder nearly took game one in Idaho, before a double-overtime victory in game two forced a third game, while snapping a league-record 30-game Jr. Steelheads winning-streak and perfect record at home through the regular season and round one of the playoffs.
Meanwhile out west, Valencia gave their top-seeded counterpart a run for their money, also winning in overtime in game two, snapping a 22-game Fresno winning-streak and also marking the second time-ever the Flyers had prevailed over the might Monsters.
Both third games were instant classics that came down to the wire but somebody had to win and now four teams are left standing that are headed to the Thorne Cup Finals in El Paso at the end of the month.
# 1: El Paso Rhinos (35-9-2 in regular season) hosting #2: Dallas Ice Jets (29-12-5)
The only sweep of the weekend proved once again that the El Paso Rhinos are not a team to be slept on.
After a turbulent first half to the season, Head Coach Cory Herman righted the ship after a less than stellar showing at the showcase and guided his club to a 17-2-2 record down the stretch, sealing the top spot in the division yet again.
After being taken to the edge by the fourth-seeded New Mexico Renegades in round one, the Rhinos picked up their play in the second round, making quick work of the upstart Dallas Ice Jets in two games.
By the way, they did all of this while fully-knowing they were guaranteed a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals as the host team.
After a successful first regular season in the league, in which they jockeyed with El Paso for the top spot from wire-to-wire, the Dallas Ice Jets took care of business in the opening round as well, knocking off the Texas Brahmas in three tight games.
After the win against Texas, the Ice Jets were then guaranteed a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals as well, as even if the Rhinos were able to beat them and win the title, they would earn a trip because the host team was already in regardless.
In the final series of the regular season for both squads, the Ice Jets won the first two games convincingly over the Rhinos and wound up picking up five out of a possible six points over the weekend.
Any momentum gained from that series did not carry over however to this one however, as the experience and poise of El Paso was on display over the weekend.
6:55 into the opening game, the Ice Jets looked to quiet the Rhinos' crowd, as they got on the board first thanks to another goal by forward Christian Elsborg.
2:02 later however, the Rhinos were ahead, thanks to goals from Brenden Gust and Dallas Szustak, coming just 43 seconds apart.
Michael Rivera's marker 38 seconds into the second, gave the Rhinos a 3-1 lead and gave the appearance of a back-breaker coming so early in the period.
As they've done so all season, the Ice Jets fought back and headed to the locker room tied at three after 40 minutes of play. Their constant movement on the power play was the difference, as Elsborg put home his second of the game and Sam Akins tied it, with both goals coming while on the man-advantage.
The only goal scored in a tight third period came off the stick of forward John Morales, as the grind it out style of the Rhinos took its toll on the Dallas defense and El Paso took game one by a score of 4-3.
Trent Caspar continued his stellar play from round one, stopping 29 of the 32 Dallas shots he faced, picking up his third win of the post-season in the process.
Michael Baldwin also started his fourth game of the playoffs for the Ice Jets and was hit with his second loss, giving up four goals on 36 shots.
It was a collective effort the next evening as well for the Rhinos, as their constant forecheck caused problems all night for the Dallas defense and El Paso took the series with a 4-2 win.
With El Paso up 2-0 midway through the second, Akins' second in as many nights pulled the Ice Jets within one but David Nelson's goal just about three minutes later killed any momentum and put the Rhinos back up by two.
Again, the Ice Jets' power play provided some momentum, as Jefferson Wright's goal right as the buzzer sounded to end the second period gave Dallas hope heading into the third period but again, the Rhinos were just too much, as the El Paso defense put the clamps on and Rivera's empty-netter put it on ice.
This was a statement series from the El Paso Rhinos and it starts with their coaching. I know I'm beating a dead horse but Cory Herman always has his boys ready to play; simply put.
They may not have as much talent as we're used to seeing out of them and they still have a few kinks to work out but they have a strong group of veterans that know how to win games and never stop working.
In a series in which they could have taken a few shifts off and rested up for the finals, they turned it up that much more and took care of a very tough team.
The Dallas Ice Jets may have lost but they ultimately win in the end.
The big win for the Ice Jets was last Sunday, as they pulled away late in game three against Texas and assured themselves of a spot in the finals.
They will be a definite underdog, playing against the top seed from each division but they've proven they can play with anyone and their power play is absolutely lethal.
They need guys other than Elsborg, Akins and Wright to find the back of the net if they want to make some noise in a couple of weeks.
It'd be nice to see Chace Jackson, Johnny Henson and Dan Hudson put up some points if you're Head Coach Paul Taylor, as his team is hard to beat when they get that scoring depth that few teams possess.
Both teams are moving on either way but lookout for the Rhinos!
#1: Idaho Jr. Steelheads (42-2-2) hosting #2: Boulder Bison (33-10-3)
The biggest rollercoaster ride of the weekend came in McCall, Idaho, where the top-seeded Jr. Steelheads hosted the second-seeded Boulder Bison.
Everyone knows what Boulder's offense is capable of but the biggest question still plaguing them coming into the playoffs was their goaltending situation, where three different guys played a similar amount of games in the regular season and none truly took the reins.
That problem was quickly solved in the opening round however, as Chris Komma, an Idaho native, played some of his best hockey of the year in two dominating wins over Cheyenne.
Idaho meanwhile took care of business rather easily against Ogden, winning both games handily and extending their league-record winning streak to 29 coming into a clash with Boulder, a team they beat all six times during the regular season.
Boulder's offense was alive and well early on in game one, as they silenced a home crowd that had not seen their Jr. Steelheads lose at home all season long.
The league's leading scorer in the regular season, Chris Guidotti, handed Boulder the lead just 3:44 into the contest, converting while on the power play with assists from Ryan Gauthier and Will Neff.
Boulder extended their lead to 2-0, as their top line struck again, with Gauthier getting the goal this time from Taylor Porrier and Guidotti with just 7:37 left in regulation.
With all indications pointing toward a Boulder upset, Ben Hanus and Sean Van Eysden scored 18 seconds apart to tie the game at two late in the third.
The same two Idaho forwards assisted on the game-winning goal just minutes later, as Matt Sanford scored with just 49 seconds before the buzzer, completing an amazing comeback and giving the home team a commanding lead in the best of three series.
After letting game one slip away late, Boulder again held a 2-0 lead late in game two and once again, Idaho came back with a late flurry to tie the game.
Two role players tallied for Boulder, as Jake Bauer scored in the first and Anthony Cullen put one home in the second, giving them a two goal lead after 40 minutes of play.
In the third, it was once again Sanford providing the spark for the Idaho offense, scoring on a penalty shot 5:32 into the third period.
With time winding down late, Vance Bridgman's even strength marker with 2:23 left in regulation knotted the game at two.
With 1:33 left before the buzzer, Stefan Brucato got hauled off for tripping and the lethal Boulder power play went back to work with a chance to put the game away.
A goal was scored but it wasn't the Bison taking the lead, as captain Justin Videen found twine while shorthanded for Idaho, giving them the 3-2 lead with 1:22 left in regulation and providing a nightmarish déj vu for Boulder.
Boulder looked down and out but Dylan Meier scored a momentous goal with just 18 seconds left to spare, sending the Boulder bench wild and the game into overtime.
The first extra period solved nothing, as neither team budged and both goaltenders played well.
In the second overtime period, it was Mr. Reliable, Guidotti putting the game away for Boulder with his third of the post-season with 8:09 left.
Gauthier and Porrier assisted on the goal, which extended the series, while also snapping Idaho's league-record 30 game winning-streak and perfect record at home.
After a scoreless first period to open the finale, Idaho came out strong in period two, getting power play goals from Bridgman and Sanford to take a 2-0 lead.
Brucato's goal 3:52 into the third period extended the lead to three for the Steelies, before defenseman Preston James fired back for Boulder, scoring two goals in the period to make a game of it again.
With time winding down late, Skyler McKnight put the series away with just 15 seconds left, sending Idaho into the Thorne Cup Finals with a 4-2 win and ending a great run for the Bison.
Boulder's top two lines could match just about anyone in the league but Idaho was just too much in the end. The Bison really turned it up at the right time and who knows what they could have done in a five or six game series.
Idaho took a Saturday night loss in stride and came back strong on Sunday to secure the series win. They may have gotten a bit of a wake-up call at the right time however, as they now know they won't be able to sail through everyone.
They are still the top dog in my opinion and I'm salivating to see their re-match with Fresno.
#1: Fresno Monsters (43-2-1) hosting #3: Valencia Flyers (23-17-6)
After an upset victory over the San Diego Gulls in the opening round, the Valencia Flyers faced arguably their toughest task in team history; three playoff games in Fresno against the league-leading Monsters.
It was business as usual for the Monsters however, as after a sweep of the fourth-seeded Arizona Redhawks the weekend before, they looked to overcome playoff lapses the last couple of seasons against a team they hadn't failed to pick up at least a point against in 18 all-time meetings.
The Monsters got off to a quick start in game one, as Jason Beisinger continued a torrid start to the playoffs, scoring his fourth of the post-season just 37 seconds in while on the power play.
From that moment on however, Valencia dominated the remainder of the period, out-shooting Fresno 14-6 and getting goals from Sam Khongmuk and Hunter Jensen to take a 2-1 lead late into the period.
They say good teams find ways to stick around in periods they are outplayed and the Monsters did just that, as all the Flyers' work was for naught, as Nick McKee put one home on the power play with just 52 seconds left before the buzzer, killing any momentum Valencia had gained from a strong opening period.
9:25 into the middle frame, defenseman Albert Boyamyan regained the lead for Valencia with his first of the post-season but again, the Monsters answered almost immediately, as Beisinger netted his second of the game just 19 seconds later.
Usually the setup man, German forward Marc Haaf scored the eventual game-winner 3:51 into the third period, with assists from Beisinger and McKee. The top line's three combined points on the game-winner pushed their total to seven points in a strong opening game.
In a surprising move, rookie Tom McGuckin got the start in net in game one over veteran Marcus Harbison. The New Jersey native did not disappoint, stopping 24 of 27 in the win.
The next night the two teams were scoreless after a very even opening frame, as two veterans, Stephen Palmer of Valencia and Harbison of Fresno battled it out in net.
Over the final two periods the Monsters peppered Palmer with 29 shots, compared to only 7 Flyers shots on Harbison.
The imbalance in shots did not equate to the scoreboard however, as the Monsters got goals from Ethan Carlson and Beisinger, while Preston Nowak and Sebastien Beauregard tallied for Valencia to force overtime.
In overtime, the Flyers went short-handed after taking a two-many men penalty and it looked like that would do it. They killed it off however behind solid goaltending from Palmer and as he has been all year, the rookie leader in goal scoring during the regular season was clutch again for Valencia.
After the penalty had concluded, Austin Ehrlich took a pass from fellow rookie Hunter Jensen in the neutral zone and broke in all-alone against Harbison.
The left-handed shot placed a perfect wrister right up and over the blocker of the big goaltender, sending the Valencia bench onto the ice, and handing them a 3-2 win against a team they were 1-14-4 against prior.
In an early-morning start the next day, the Monsters again pulled away late and won the series with a 4-2 victory.
Again the power play of Fresno set the pace early on, as Josiah Nikkel put one home 2:07 in, before rookie Ray Wilson tied it for Valencia not even five minutes later.
Beisinger's fourth of the series and sixth of the post-season gave the Monsters the lead heading into the first intermission, as the two power play goals gave the home team the early momentum.
Just 17 seconds into the second period however, Ehrlich continued his flare for the dramatic, knotting the game at two with a shorthanded marker for Valencia.
After two periods of play the game was tied at two, with Fresno holding a narrow margin in shots, 22-21.
In the third however, the Monsters' offense took over and scored twice, while outshooting the visitors 13-6, scoring twice in the process and taking the victory behind another strong start from McGuckin.
Again, it was the top line of Fresno providing the offense as McKee scored early in the third from Haaf and Beisinger and Beisinger scored late from Haaf and McKee.
In all the Haaf-Beisinger-McKee line accounted for a total of 19 points on the weekend and scored eight of the ten Fresno goals.
In direct contrast, the top line of Valencia was held to just five points over the weekend and the second leading scorer in the entire league during the regular season, Eddie Keshishian, picked up just two assists on the series.
The Monsters got a little scare from the Flyers but the top line carried them through and into the Thorne Cup Finals for the first time.
In their last two playoff appearances, Fresno completely collapsed against lesser opponents but stuck with the system Bryce Dale has put into place and have been fantastic in every facet this playoff season.
They also proved you can't play shorthanded against them, as they have too much skill and just about every line can play on the power play.
It will be interesting to see who Dale goes to in net in El Paso, as the rookie McGuckin has seemingly stolen away the top spot from a guy (Harbison) who didn't lose a game all regular season.
Regardless of who is in net, I wouldn't want to play the Monsters, especially if guys like Don Coyle, Rob Kolander and Josiah Nikkel can get hot.
The Flyers have nothing to hang their heads over, as they completed their most successful campaign in ten seasons in the WSHL.
They started off slow but with the help of some key additions were red-hot entering the playoffs. They won their first playoff series since the 2008-2009 season and pushed one of the best teams in junior hockey to the edge.
Not many outside of their locker room believed they would make it that far but in his first season as Head Coach, Jocelyn Langlois has instilled a winning tradition in Valencia that will last for seasons to come and can't hurt recruiting this summer.
THREE STARS OF THE WEEK
Jason Beisinger-Forward (Fresno Monsters)-
The top line in Fresno carried them in a weekend series with Valencia and veteran forward Jason Beisinger was a huge part of it. Nick McKee is the flashiest of the bunch and creates problems every time he's on the ice, while Marc Haaf is the setup man. Beisinger is the finisher and although he's probably the least skilled of the three, he has an innate knack for being in the right spot at the right time, has a nose for the net and is as clutch as they come; three unteachable attributes. He picked up five goals and an assist in three games against the Flyers and is second in playoff scoring with 10 points. I liken the game he plays to a Raffi Torres. He isn't the biggest guy but can get under the opponents skin and always shows up on the scoresheet, the kind of guy opponents hate to play against.
Matt Sanford-Forward (Idaho Jr. Steelheads)- Idaho's offense was dormant in the early stages of games one and two against Boulder and Matt Sanford was the spark that lit the fuse. The North Pole, Alaska native had a goal in each game; the game-winner in game one, a penalty shot goal that started their onslaught in the middle game and a power play marker in the finale. Since returning to the team, Sanford hasn't missed a beat and is scoring seemingly at will.
Michael Rivera-Forward (El Paso Rhinos)- The El Paso captain scored just two goals in a two game sweep of the Dallas Ice Jets over the weekend but the reason he gets the third star is his leadership. He leads by example and even though his team experienced some ups and downs throughout the regular season, he helped level them out and finish up impressively in the post-season, all the while knowing his squad was guaranteed a spot in the finals either way. His leadership is evident in the way he plays and he also led the team in points during the regular season. A guy that knows how to win hockey games; period.
What a weekend! The Thorne Cup Finals are set and there are some matchups I am very excited to see.
Each team left can score, they all can play defense and they all have amazing depth. The deciding factor in my opinion will be the goaltending over the four days of hockey in El Paso.
March Madness may be the phrase used for NCAA Basketball Tournament but what will take place in El Paso March 29- April 1 is sure to be nothing short of that.
Stay tuned this week as I'll have a Thorne Cup Finals Preview as well as schedule available!