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Rhinos complete successful season with Thorne Cup

Photo courtesy of the El Paso Rhinos
The Rhinos won their third Thorne Cup in franchise history on Sunday.

For the second time in five years, the El Paso Rhinos are the Western States Hockey League Champions after defeating the Ogden Mustangs 3-2 on Sunday, April 15.

While their season record reads 55-3-1 for the 2018 season, the Rhinos’ road was much tougher than it looked. They were on the brink of elimination before eventually winning their third national title in program history (2008 and 2014).

Heading into the tournament, the Rhinos were one of the hottest teams in the nation. The path to the finals was off to a rocky start after El Paso lost their first two games of the tournament to Long Beach, losing 4-1, and to Oklahoma City.

The opening two losses in the round-robin games had the Rhinos in a must-win situation. Any loss after that would have eliminated the Rhinos from the playoffs.

Set to face the Utah Outliers on a two-game losing streak, the Rhinos found themselves down early against the Outliers. However, a late surge from El Paso and a game-winning goal from Austin Simpson, 4-3, sent the Rhinos to the Thorne Cup against the five-time champions the Idaho IceCats.

In the regular season, the IceCats handed the Rhinos one of their few losses of the season, 3-2.

But it was a different story come playoff time as the Rhinos played lights-out defense and scored the first goal of the game within the first two minutes of the matchup. Leading 1-0 in the second period, the Rhinos tacked on another score from a long-distance shot to increase their lead, 2-0.

From there on, the Rhinos made sure to complete their redemption game behind a 19-save game from Pickles, shutting the IceCats out 4-0 in the semifinals to reach the Thorne  Cup finals.

The stage was finally set to crown the 2018 Thorne Cup champions. 

At El Paso’s Sierra Providence Event Center at the County Coliseum, the Rhinos had their fans behind them in the championship game. And the Rhinos also had the advantage in experience, as El Paso was appearing in the championship game for their third time, while the Mustangs had never been on that stage before in their seven-year history.

In the final period of the game, the two teams were tied at two apiece. In crunch time, El Paso’s forward Nikita Pintusov generated a crucial turnover and trekked down the ice to score the go-ahead goal, putting the Rhinos up 3-2 with only two minutes left in the game.

Pickles did his job after his offense got him the lead, as he denied everything that Ogden was sending his way. He ended the championship game with 27 saves and held the 3-2 lead until the final buzzer of the game went off.

General manager Corey Heon led the Rhinos’ third championship team. The team consists of a mix of talents from all over the world, featuring 13 American players, 13 Canadian athletes, two German natives, a player from Belarus and another from the Czech Republic. Altogether, the Rhinos’ experienced roster had played more than 1,100 games combined. This El Paso team’s average age is only 19 years old.

As the Rhinos have just won their third championship since they were founded in 2006, the future is of the team is just as bright.

  Follow Mike Flores on Twitter @mikey_flores

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Rhinos complete successful season with Thorne Cup