02/07/2010 10:56 PM -
Due to a scheduling quirk the game was scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday before the Western States Hockey League began its season, but the Rhinos were able to reschedule the game time, thus the teams began the final game of the three-game series at 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
The early face-off didn't phase the hosts, as Nick Gualano improved on his league-leading goal total by opening the scoring at 11:50 of the first period.
Gualano has 47 goals on the season to pace the WSHL.
After San Antonio's Kevin Eastwood tied the score at 14:02, Ben Henne scored at 17:20 to give the hosts the lead at the first intermission.
Donald Geary and defenseman Casey Lutz tallied for the Rhinos in the second -- Lutz's goal standing as the game-winner after Diablos team captain Matthew Guffey got one back for the visitors with under a minute left in the second.
That was the final goal for San Antonio, but not for El Paso and Frankie Posillico and John Redmond struck in the third for the Rhinos.
El Paso is now 44-5-0 and has wrapped up home-ice advantage through the Mid-West Division playoffs. The Rhinos will face this same Diablos team in the first round of the playoffs at the Sierra Providence Events Center in the last weekend of February.
Meanwhile, Boulder sewed up the Mid-West's second seed winning two of three games in Tulsa against the Rampage this weekend. The only team in the the division to have beaten El Paso this season earns the right to host Tulsa in the opening round of the playoffs -- important, because the Rampage's home rink is not regulation size. The Bison will be able to roam free on home ice while Tulsa will have to deal with the altitude in Boulder, CO.
Whoever represents the Mid-West as champion will have to travel to face the Western Division winner, as the WSHL alternates the site of the Thorne Cup Finals each season. All playoff series are best-of-three.
Two seasons ago, the Rhinos traveled to Phoenix and swept the Polar Bears to win the Cup. Phoenix came to El Paso and returned the favor.
However, this season the Polar Bears are a distant fourth in the standings, as many of the newest league members have had strong inaugural seasons, the Bison among them. The Western Division is paced by the Fresno Monsters, which plays in cavernous Selland Arena, the former home to the Fresno State Bulldogs basketball teams.
Fresno is followed in the standings by the Idaho Steelheads, another new team, and a resurgent San Diego Gulls squad is third.
El Paso will have next weekend off before returning home to face the New Mexico Renegades in the final series of the regular season, Feb. 19-21, games that will also be televised on MetroSports Southwest, Time Warner Cable-El Paso's ch. 24.
For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825) or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.