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Rhinos Re-Loaded: New Players, Vets Help As Team Readies for Dallas

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We don’t know if El Paso Rhinos head coach Cory Herman enjoys Comedy Central’s “Workaholics”, but he certainly lives by the words at the end of its theme song.

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“Ya gotta be fresh.”

Credit Herman for doing exactly that with his team. Not content with a lineup that went 19-0 into December before losing to two other division leaders, Idaho and Fresno, at the Western States Hockey League Showcase in Las Vegas, NV; Herman has been actively scouring the hockey landscape for players who can help him win an elusive second Thorne Cup.

El Paso (35-2-0-0, 70 points) has made it to the Thorne Cup Finals in all but one (2010) of its eight seasons in the WSHL, yet has only won once, in 2008. And since the Finals went to a tournament format two seasons ago, the Rhinos have yet to make it to the championship game.

So, after 4-1 losses to the Junior Steelheads and Monsters last December, Herman decided to add to an already-formidable arsenal.

The result has been another 15 straight wins since resuming play in January; and as the Rhinos open their three-game series Friday night against the team directly behind them in the Midwest Division, the Dallas Ice Jets (23-11-1-2, 49 points), they do so knowing they have home-ice advantage all the way through the Thorne Cup.

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The Finals will be played in El Paso’s Events Center, April 2-6. The objective for Herman, as it is for any playoff team, is to win on April 6th.

To that end, Herman picked up forward Krisztian Nagy a month ago, and the Hungarian has responded by scoring points almost upon arrival. Same for winger Austin Hoff, who returned to the Rhinos after spending most of the season with Rio Grande of the Tier II NAHL.

If that wasn’t enough, two weekends ago the Rhinos traded for three of the San Diego Gulls top players in Eric Baldwin (33g, 33a), Drew DePalma (23g, 35a) and offensive defenseman Kalvis Ozols (18g, 25a); all of whom have scored four goals in six games, all of whom have at least six points. Ozols has 12 points in his six games (4g, 8a).

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Add in goalie Bryce Fink from the Seattle Totems, who carries a 91.6 saves percentage; 6-4 forward Jiri Pestuka (3g, 1a); defensemen Chandler Bruyckere and the punishing 6-4, 250-pound Daniil Karamushkin, and one of the toughest teams in Tier III junior hockey just got tougher.

Herman praised the contributions of his new players while noting they’ve barely made a ripple in a locker room with players who have been with El Paso all season, if not all their junior careers.

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“They have great work ethic and fit nicely onto our team,” said Herman. ”What the new players do is give us depth at each of the three positions — goal, defense and up front. Especially when we get into the playoffs, we’ll need that depth.”

Herman also believes Dallas, which bounced the Rhinos out of the Thorne Cup Finals in El Paso two seasons ago before losing to three-time champion Idaho, will be a real test for his team.

“The Ice Jets are a very well-coached team. They compete hard every shift and they follow their system really well,” said Herman. “It will be a good three games.”

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