Soo Firehawks: 6 (OT)
AHI Fighting Spirit: 5
The Soo Firehawks (MWJHL runners-up) and AHI Fighting Spirit (NSHL regular season champion) kicked off the championship bracket with an exciting back-and-forth affair than needed overtime to solve it.
Just 1:42 into the extra period however, Soo captain Kevin Killips put one home to end one of the more evenly matched games you'll see all week.
Meeting for the first time ever, the two teams traded goals in each of the first two periods, with Mitch Purdie pacing AHI to a 1-0 lead late in the opening frame, only to be answered by Nicholas Murphy, who tied it up 57 seconds later for Soo.
10:52 into the second, Tyler Jones converted on the power play to give the Firehawks their first lead of the day but less than three minutes later, Ryan Chauvin notched a power play marker of his own to tie things up for the Fighting Spirit.
Continuing the trend early in the third, Murphy, the MWJHL's leading scorer during the regular season, notched his second of the game just 47 ticks in to give the Firehawks the lead back for a moment but at 7:46, Chauvin answered with his second goal of the game for the Fighting Spirit.
After a rare lull in the scoring action, Mike Kelleher gave AHI the lead back with his goal at 13:44 but it didn't last long, as it took Soo just 30 seconds to knot it up again, as Luke Wizauer made it a 4-4 game.
With time winding down in regulation, Jones put home his second goal of the game and it looked like it would hold up as the game winner for Soo but Chauvin completed his hat trick just 52 seconds later to knot it up at five and send the contest into overtime.
There's no answering back in sudden death overtime however and Killips netted the winner just 1:42 in, as the Firehawks picked up the big victory.
Murphy and Jones each had two goals to lead the Firehawks attack; while Anthony Benvenuti stopped 36 of the 41 shots he faced in net.
Chauvin finished with a game-high four points to lead the Fighting Spirit, while Nate DelGiudice was hit with the overtime loss in net, stopping 31 of the 37 shots he saw.
The Firehawks will take a 1-0-0 record into the re-match of the Veteran's Memorial Cup Championship series, as they face the rival Traverse City Hounds tomorrow at 10:15 am.
AHI (0-0-1) still has a point to show for the overtime loss and will face the NSHL playoff champion Jersey Shore Wildcats tomorrow at 4:15 pm, who they went 4-1-0 against in the regular season.
Jersey Shore Wildcats: 1
El Paso Rhinos: 3
Still perfect in 2014, the El Paso Rhinos (WSHL playoff champion) got off to a slow start at the spot of their last defeat but picked up their play as the game went along and scored three unanswered goals to come from behind and beat the Jersey Shore Wildcats 3-1.
Showing a little rust early on, the Rhinos may have been surprised, as well, with the skill of the Wildcats, who got into the event as the NSHL's playoff champion.
Playing a fundamentally sound first period, the Wildcats got on the board first at 12:05 of the opening frame, as Alexandre Racicot beat Bryce Fink to make it 1-0.
Where most teams rely on their power play or even strength play to get things going, the Rhinos always seem to get a boost from their penalty kill, which scored a league-high 39 goals during the regular season.
Down a man late in the period, El Paso tied it up at one with just six seconds left on the clock, as Jiri Pestuka put one home off a feed from Tom Bartel.
Picking up the pace in the second, the Rhinos started to control the puck and fire some good chances on goal and Pestuka's second of the game, this one off a pretty passing play set-up by David Nelson, made it 2-1 at 6:26, with a secondary assist going to Bartel.
Jersey Shore started to open things up a bit toward the latter part of the period but couldn't muster many chances on Fink, who had to be solid but not spectacular.
The Rhinos were content just to cycle the puck in the Jersey Shore zone and keep everything to the outside in the third period, as the Wildcats did a great job of collapsing down low all game. After Nelson made it 3-1 in favor of El Paso with his goal at 5:53 of the period, they locked it down and held on for the win.
Pestuka finished the game with three points to lead the Rhinos offense, while both Bartel and Nelson had two.
Fink stopped 22 of 23 in yet another solid performance in net, while Shane Lippincott was strong at the other end for Jersey Shore, as well, stopping 35 of 38, including a number of grade "A" scoring chances.
With the rust now gone, or at least starting to subside, the Rhinos (1-0-0) will face the Idaho Jr. Steelheads tomorrow at 1:15 pm in the re-match of the Thorne Cup Championship Game.
Jersey Shore (0-1-0) surprised a lot of people with their effort and will take on the NSHL rival AHI Fighting Spirit tomorrow at 4:15 pm.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads: 3
Traverse City Hounds: 0
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads (WSHL runners-up) began the defense of their title with an impressive performance, as they dominated the MWJHL Champion Traverse City Hounds for 60 minutes and if not for the fantastic goaltending of David Krejcik, would have won by a lot more than 3-0, which was the final score.
With a handful of key forwards back in the lineup, including Bryan Hodges (injury) Randy Patzner (suspension) and Kirk Van Arkel (returned from the North American Hockey League), the Jr. Steelheads looked just like they did a year ago, when they won the inaugural United Hockey Union National Championship.
With Idaho coming out flying to begin the opening period, the ice was tilted toward the Traverse City zone, with the Jr. Steelheads making Krejcik work early and often.
Even while outshooting the Hounds 22-4 over the opening 20, the Jr. Steelheads were only able to solve Krejcik once, as Macky Power picked up a loose puck in the slot and put it in on the backhand with 2:27 left in the period.
It was more of the same in the second, as Idaho kept coming but Krejcik kept making the saves and allowing few rebounds, as he attempted to slow play down and allow his team to get something going.
With things starting to even out a bit as the period went along, Kyle Williams pushed the lead to 2-0 in favor of Idaho with his goal at 14:08.
Traverse City tried to open it up a bit in the third but couldn't get much working, as Idaho's defensive system hardened and Danny Kowalski made a couple of his better saves, as the Jr. Steelheads held on to win it 3-0, after an empty netter from captain Dak Dice.
Williams finished the game with two points to lead Idaho, while Kowalski stopped all 16 shots he faced in net.
Krejcik took the loss in the Traverse City crease despite his terrific effort, as the Czech Republic native stopped 41 of 43 on the night.
Looking the best they have in a while, the Jr. Steelheads (1-0-0) will face the El Paso Rhinos at 1:15 pm tomorrow, the same Rhinos team that beat them 7-3 in the Thorne Cup Championship game just 10 days ago.
Traverse City (0-1-0) will also face a team they played just 10 days ago, as they meet the rival Soo Firehawks, who they beat in the Veteran's Memorial Cup Championship game, at 10:15 am.
"Best of the Rest" Bracket
WSHL (1): 4
The Western States Hockey League overage squad ran into some penalty trouble against a surprisingly staunch Northern States Hockey league team but came on in the third period to win by a score of 4-3.
Long Beach Bombers forward Martin Vachal got the scoring started with his goal at 15:17 of the opening period and less than four minutes later, Ben Henry (Southern Oregon Spartans) scored a beauty on a breakaway to make it 2-0.
The NSHL squad got back within one on a big goal by high-scoring defenseman Kim Miettinen, who beat Drake Koegel with 15 seconds left before the intermission.
8:04 into the second period, the game was knotted at two, as Danny Randall converted on the power play to pull the NSHL team even.
Working quickly to begin the third, the NSHL took their first lead of the game, as Jon Lauer made it 3-2 just 1:31 in.
Following that goal however, the WSHL team began to wake up and put some shifts together, before Jimmy Peplinski (Ogden Mustangs) tied the game at three with his goal at 8:05 and Alex Pomerville (Salt Lake City Moose) notched the game-winner at 13:23.
Peplinski finished the game with a goal and an assist to lead the WSHL charge, while Koegel stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced to earn the win in net.
Patrick Spaulding was strong in net for the NSHL, who went just 1-5 on the power play on the day, and took the loss while stopping 28 of 31.
The WSHL overage team (1-0-0) will face their youthful rival, when they play the under-20 team tomorrow at 12: 15 pm and the NSHL squad (0-1-0) will face the MWJHL at 9:15 am.
WSHL (2): 13
The other "Best of the Rest" game of the day wasn't nearly as close, as the WSHL under-20 squad lambasted a short-benched MWJHL team by a score of 13-1.
The Colorado Jr. Eagles were well represented in the opening period, as Nick Davidson, Lance Pennington and Levi Weber each tallied to give the WSHL a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Weber added his second of the game 5:15 into the middle stanza, before Heath Lantz (Cheyenne Stampede) and Nicholas Short (Long Beach Bombers) pushed the lead to 6-0 midway through regulation.
The MWJHL finally got on the board at 15:29, as Savelii Skurikhin blasted one home on the power play but the WSHL came right back to notch the final seven goals of the game, including the second of the day for both Davidson and Lantz and the third for Weber.
Weber and San Diego Gulls forward Kyle Rimbach each finished the game with four points, while Mark Becica (Valencia Flyers) stopped 17 of the 18 shots he faced to pick up the win in net.
Paul Stomper was a bit busier at the other end for the MWJHL, as he faced 42 shots and stopped 29 in the loss.
The WSHL under-20 team (1-0-0) will faceoff against their elders tomorrow, as they meet the WSHL overage team at 12:15 pm, while the MWJHL (0-1-0) clashes with the NSHL at 9:15 am.
Brent Maranto is the WSHL Director of Communications