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Taylor Bargar and Chad Cesarz each scored twice and the Rhinos' special teams contributed half of their eight goals Friday afternoon, as El Paso dominated the Fresno Monsters from start to finish, 8-3. The win all but assures the Rhinos of the top seed going into the semifinals of the Thorne Cup Saturday.
Team captain and El Paso native Mike Rivera opened the scoring 1:16 into the game. The Monsters' Jordan Fontaine equalized at 9:13 of the first, but Cesarz scored the first of three Rhinos power play goals just over two minutes later to give his team a 2-1 lead after the opening frame.
Cesarz started a string of four unanswered goals for the WSHL's Mountain Conference champions. John Morales scored El Paso's second shorthanded goal in as many games at 3:28 of the second period, and Aaron Rasmussen and Bargar each scored power play goals at 9:17 and 13:20, respectively.
Filip Winkler scored a power play goal for Fresno at 15:37, but Bargar knocked in his second just 86 seconds later to make it 6-2 after 40 minutes.
The third period was uneventful except for a 65-second span that featured three goals. Rhinos' forward Andrew Bradford's unassisted tally at 15:42 was followed by the Monsters' Cory Kachel just 16 seconds later, followed in turn by Cesarz second of the day 49 seconds after that.
El Paso continued a solid run of post-season success on special teams, going 3-for-9 on the power play Friday while holding Fresno to just one goal in eight tries with the man advantage, including its third shorthanded goal of the postseason.
Though happier with Friday's result than he was with Thursday's sloppy opening period that saw his team turn a 3-1 deficit into a 6-3 win over the Bay Area Seals, head coach Cory Herman still sees room for improvement.
"I thought today we started better and we had a better jump to our game," said Herman. "We still need to work on our penalty kill. I think we could do a better job on that, and on executing our game plan overall.
"We need to work on a solid, full 60 minutes of hockey. We still haven't done that."
El Paso avenges a 3-1 loss to the Monsters last December at the Western States Hockey League's Holiday Showcase in Las Vegas, NV; though Fresno might have entered Friday's game a bit worn out.
The Monsters played tough but lost to the two-time defending champion Idaho Junior Steelheads, 4-3, in the final game Thursday night -- an 8 p.m. MDT start -- then had to turn around and play El Paso in the first game Friday at noon MDT.
But Fresno lost its opportunity at a better seed, beaten by the Seals in the Pacific Conference playoffs after winning the conference championship in the regular season. The loss meant the Monsters entered round robin play at the Thorne Cup as the lone wild card team, inheriting the toughest road to the semifinals.
Fresno heads home along with last season's runners-up, the Dallas Ice Jets. Like the Monsters, Dallas lost both of its games in round robin play, leaving Bay Area, the Southern Oregon Spartans and homestanding Idaho as the WSHL's Frozen Four.
The teams will be re-seeded according to record. Goal differential will be used as a tie-breaker. The Junior Steelheads (1-0) and Southern Oregon (1-0) were playing in the final round robin game, but Idaho (+1) would have to win by eight goals and the Spartans (+2) would have to beat the Steelheads by seven goals to surpass the Rhinos' +8 goal differential and earn the top seed going into Saturday's semifinals.
The second and third seeds play at 2 p.m. at the Manchester Ice and Events Center in McCall, ID; while the top seed faces the fourth seed at 7 p.m. MDT.
The Thorne Cup Final will be Easter Sunday at 5 p.m. MDT.
Follow this link for the official game stats, courtesy of PointStreak: http://pointstreak.com/prostats/boxscore.html?gameid=2171877
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