El Paso dethrones Idaho for second time in two weeks, to become new UHU National Champions
Exactly two weeks ago to the day, the El Paso Rhinos put a bow on a perfect second half of their WSHL season and playoffs, when they took down the three-time defending Thorne Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads on home ice.
Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, Nevada, they took the Jr. Steelheads' United Hockey Union National Championship from them as well, coming from behind in an exciting 6-3 victory.
The Jr. Steelheads were the ones coming out strong and setting the tone in the first period however, taking the lead just 21 seconds in, as Kyle Williams drove the net and re-directed a Victor Carlsson pass by Bryce Fink to make it 1-0.
Idaho kept the pressure in the El Paso zone for most of the period, with the Rhinos a bit sloppy in their own end and too pretty at the other, looking for the perfect opportunity when they had the puck.
At 4:48 of the period, Idaho pushed their lead to 2-0, as Carlsson and Williams hooked up again, with Williams picking off an El Paso outlet pass and feeding the slick Swede, who beat Fink under the bar.
The Rhinos would pick up the pace a little late in the period but Sean Healy made some big saves for Idaho, including one on David Nelson from the slot, to preserve their lead heading into the intermission.
As they've shown time and time again however, the Rhinos can turn it up at the drop of a hat and score in bunches and that's exactly what they did in the middle frame, outshooting Idaho 21-5 and scoring three times to take the lead.
Their aggressive penalty killing unit, which led the WSHL with 39 goals in the regular season, got the Rhinos on the board at 4:45, as Nick Plesa won a faceoff cleanly to defenseman Jack Strusz, who put a perfect shot over the shoulder of Healy to make it 2-1.
3:08 later, the Plesa brothers made their presence felt, as they took over in the Idaho zone and swarmed for quite some time, before Peter sent a spin around back hand shot on net and it squeaked through the Idaho goaltender to knot it at two, with his two brothers, Matt and Nick, providing the helpers.
Less than a minute later, the Rhinos patented roll was in full swing, as depth forward Andrew Bradford banged one home off an assist from Austin Hoff to make it a 3-2 game, seemingly in a blink of an eye.
Heavily outplayed for most of the period, Idaho took advantage of one of their few opportunities and knotted the game before the intermission, as they notched a short handed goal of their own, with Dimitris Jones finishing off another pass from Kyle Williams to tie it up at 13:40.
It didn't take the Rhinos long to take the lead back for good in the third, as the Plesa's, quiet for most of the week, came alive again, with Peter picking up his second goal of the game, with assists again going to brothers Nick and Matt, giving El Paso a 4-3 lead just 2:27 in.
A pair of key late season additions from the San Diego Gulls then hooked up to give the Rhinos a 5-3 lead at 4:07, as Drew DePalma converted off a feed from Eric Baldwin.
El Paso then shut it down over the final 15 minutes, not allowing Idaho many, if any chances on Fink, as they controlled the puck, killed time and suffocated any rush in the neutral zone.
Kyle Grabowski then pulled Healy from the net for an extra attacker with over two minutes left, in a desperation effort to knot it up and veteran defenseman Chris Wilhite sealed it for the Rhinos, banking a clearing attempt perfectly off the wall and all the way down into the gaping net with 2:01 left on the board.
After that, it was over except for the celebration, as the Rhinos spilled onto the ice yet again, winning their first-ever national championship.
The Plesa's stepped up when the Rhinos needed them the most, combining for seven points and leading the way, while the Thorne Cup MPV, Bryce Fink, stopped 20 of 23 in net, settling in after the early rush.
Kyle Williams was all over the ice for Idaho and finished with three points, while his linemate Carlsson had two. Healy, under pressure for most of the second and third periods, stopped 33 of 38 in net.
The Rhinos hit some bumps in Sin City but like true champions, they pushed through, got better as the tournament went along and are very deserving national champions. The Jr. Steelheads defended their title valiantly and made the Rhinos work harder than any other team this season, in five great meetings between the two elite clubs.
With the Rhinos win, the WSHL has swept the UHU Titles (National Champions and Best of the Rest Champions) for the second straight year and will look to do it again a year from now, when the Northern States Hockey League plays host.
Brent Maranto is the WSHL Director of Communications