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El Paso, TX (KDBC) — The El Paso Rhinos beat the Idaho Junior Steelheads Wednesday in their first game of the Thorne Cup. One of only two teams this season to upend the Thorne Cup Finals hosts, Idaho fell behind early and could never work their way back in, as Cory Herman’s boys played determined hockey in a 4-2 win.
The Rhinos speed and tenacity was on display from the drop of the puck, as they hit the neutral zone with speed and didn’t have any problem entering the Idaho end.
Uncharacteristically and running around for most of the opening frame, Idaho was bailed out by a number of big saves from goaltender Sean Healy but he couldn’t stop two breakaways, which gave the Rhinos a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Just seconds after Healy robbed Tom Bartel’s point blank chance, Nick Plesa took a long stretch pass, carried the puck wide into the zone and cut to the net with authority. Healy got a piece of his scoring bid but it wasn’t enough, as it trickled over the line to give El Paso the lead just 2:32 in.
The Rhinos kept the pedal down as the period went along, with their staunch penalty kill nearly making it 2-0, before veteran forward David Nelson converted at 9:52.
Again using speed to drive wide, Nelson powered his way to the net and put one through the pads of Healy, as the Rhinos found a formula that worked and stuck to it until Idaho took it away.
The middle frame played much more into the hands of Idaho, as although they couldn’t create many chances, they found ways to slow up the Rhinos attack and get a few shots on goaltender Bryce Fink.
Overall, the scoring chances and speed came down a notch in the second but was ramped right back up in the third, as both teams played with a sense of urgency.
Idaho came out hard to begin the third and it didn’t take them long to get back within one, as Parker Lewis jammed in a loose puck just 2:01 into the period.
As it has all season however, the Plesa line gave the Rhinos a huge boost, as the trio of brothers hooked up to give El Paso a two-goal lead back just over two minutes later, with Nick notching his second of the game from Matthew and Peter at 4:39.
The Jr. Steelheads picked up the pace toward the end of the period and Randy Patzner got them back within one again, as the captain scored off a rebound with 3:16 left, making the last few minutes very interesting.
With the goaltender pulled late in regulation, the Jr. Steelheads swarmed in the El Paso zone as they looked to knot things up. With exactly one minute on the board, a delayed call against Jack Strusz was going to put Idaho on the power play but well after the whistle had blown play dead, Patzner took a shot at a Rhinos player and things wound up evening out.
Matthew Plesa would send a puck into the empty net with 12 seconds left to seal it, as the Rhinos won 4-2.
All three of the Plesa brothers had two points to lead the way offensively, while Bryce Fink, not tested much until the third period, stopped 19 of 21 in net.
The Rhinos were on top of their game early and even as Idaho adjusted to their attack, they were still were able to keep the intensity up and find ways to create scoring chances.
After knocking off the defending champions, they’ll be back in the nightcap on Thursday, as they face the Phoenix Knights at 7:30.
Sean Healy, who lost just three games all regular season, dropped his third straight playoff game for Idaho, stopping 27 of 30 total.
Idaho fell behind early and with a few key players out of the lineup, including Jan Blasko and Bryan Hodges, they just couldn’t create as many chances as they used to.
The systems they have in place are still strong and Kyle Grabowski made terrific in-game adjustments but the Rhinos have the game breakers the Jr. Steelheads seem to lack this season.
Another marquee match-up, the Jr. Steelheads will face the longtime rival Fresno Monsters tomorrow at 3 pm.
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