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Austin Hoff scored a natural hat trick, including the game-winner, as the El Paso Rhinos swept the Phoenix Knights out of the Thorne Cup Playoffs with a 5-1 win in Game Two of the best-of-three series Saturday night.
Coupled with a 7-3 win in Game One Friday night, the Rhinos earn the right to face the Boulder Bison in the best-of-three Mountain Conference finals beginning next Friday in El Paso.
John Morales started the scoring at 13:04 of the first period, followed by the game-winner from Hoff at 5:27 of the second frame.
The Knights' Jordan Cullum halved the El Paso lead, scoring his third goal of the weekend at 12:51 of the second; but Hoff answered with his second of the night just 35 seconds later, powering in a rebound off of Tyler Brady's shot for a 3-1 Rhinos' lead.
Hoff completed the natural hat trick, keeping his stick on the ice to redirect Brady's pass over Phoenix goalie Troy Anderson's right shoulder at 5:06 of the third period.
With El Paso on a 5-on-3 power play, a Knights' defender put his glove on the puck near the crease to stop the Rhinos' advance. Referee Jeremy Boucher did not hesitate, calling for the penalty shot at 15:28.
El Paso head coach Cory Herman also did not hesitate, calling for 17-year-old forward Kendall Craig to take the shot.
A call-up from the Rhinos' Triple-A Midget team, the Amarillo native had played hard to earn a spot on El Paso's Thorne Cup Playoff roster. Craig did not disappoint.
He circled to Anderson's left and, rather than skating in to deke the goalie, lifted a hard wrist shot over Anderson's glove hand for a top shelf goal that popped the goalie's water bottle off the top of the net.
El Paso will now face the only Western States Hockey League team to eliminate it from the playoffs before the Thorne Cup Finals. The Rhinos have won seven straight regular season conference titles and are looking for their sixth conference playoff crown.
Games One and Two of the Mountain Conference finals will be next Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MDT, followed by Game Three Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., if necessary. Tickets are available through the County Coliseum box office.
For more information contact the Rhinos' front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.
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