Watch the El Paso Rhinos Dominate Idaho to Claim Thorne Cup
The El Paso Rhinos saved the best for last.
Following a pair of by-the-skin-of-their-teeth wins over the Idaho Jr. Steelheads and Texas Brahmas and a come-from-behind effort against the Phoenix Knights in the round-robin first round, plus a 4-3 thriller over Phoenix in the semifinals, the Rhinos hopped on the three-time defending champion Steelheads and never let up Sunday to claim the WSHL's Thorne Cup.
Head coach and team owner Cory Herman's franchise earns its second-ever Thorne Cup, the first coming in 2008.
The Rhinos finish the season 53-2, climbing their way to the top with a combination of timely scoring and clutch defense. At the last, that defensive effort was led by Thorne Cup Tournament MVP, goalie Bryce Fink.
Acquired in a late-season trade with the Seattle Totems, Fink thought he'd be playing backup to El Paso's league-leading goaltender, Adam Vay. But Fink's ability warranted an every-other-game rotation through the playoffs.
Then, with Vay battling a stomach virus, Fink ended up starting four of the five games the Rhinos played in the Thorne Cup Championship. Fink finished the playoffs with a 6-0 record and the best post season goals-against average in the league at 2.00.
Fink stopped 32-of-35 Idaho shots in the championship win.
Offensively, forward David Nelson led the way, finishing with a hat trick -- including an empty net goal late in the game.
It was Nelson who began the onslaught, as linemate Jiri Pestuka made a heads-up clearance from deep near the El Paso blue line to centerman Tom Bartel.
Bartel's inch-perfect pass slid between a pair of Idaho blades to Nelson, who drew Steelheads' netminder Sean Healy off his line before sliding the puck five-hole with a backhand shot at 8:23 of the first period.
The line featuring Chad Cesarz, Austin Hoff and Andrew Bradford was equally dominating, as Hoff scored a pair and assisted on another, including the second goal -- a power play strike at 17:28 of the first.
The other two Rhinos' goals came off the sticks of defensemen Chris Wilhite and Kalvis Ozols.
Wilhite, who came to the Rhinos at 16, has spent his whole four-year junior hockey career in El Paso, in part trying to equal his brother, Marcus, who was part of El Paso's original Thorne Cup-winning team.
Hoff's assist was on Wilhite's goal, another of the Rhinos' four power play goals on the day at 9:09 of the second frame.
Ozols, the lanky 6-6 Latvian, was also late season acquisition, coming with teammates Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma from the San Diego Gulls.
Known for being a free-wheeling offensive defenseman, Ozols tempered his style -- a bit -- to fit his spot on the blue line in El Paso.
But with a cannon of a slap shot, Ozols still found opportunities to contribute to the scoring, including the Thorne Cup Finals. His power play blast at 15:44 of the second offered no chance for replacement goalie Danny Kowalski to stop the puck in time.Special teams was huge in deciding the outcome, as El Paso went 4-for-8 on the power play while holding Idaho 0-for-4 on the penalty kill.
Sunday's win marked the first appearance by the Rhinos in the Thorne Cup Finals since they were beaten in El Paso by the same Steelheads team in 2011. It is also the first time in five tries that the Rhinos have won the cup on home ice.
By virtue of making it to the championship game, both the Steelheads and Rhinos will represent the Western States Hockey League in the United Hockey Union National Championships in Las Vegas, NV, in two weeks. The possibility exists that El Paso and Idaho could face each other a fourth time in Las Vegas.
Check out the video highlights from Sunday's win below.