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Thorne Cup Preview

03/31/2014 5:09 AM -

 26 weeks of the 2013-2014 regular season and two more arduous rounds of divisional playoff hockey have left just six teams to compete for the Thorne Cup, beginning April 2 in El Paso, Texas. The perennial powers occupy their usual spots in the field but there are also a couple of surprises and regardless of what any team accomplished over their first 50-plus games, what matters now is the results over their next three and then the fourth and fifth games, if they’re lucky.

Below is a synopsis of the six competing teams, listed by seed:

1. El Paso Rhinos (Midwest Division Champions, hosts)

The hosts of the 2014 Thorne Cup Finals had a spot in the tournament regardless of what they did during the post-season but it never looked as though slowing down was an option for Cory Herman and company, as the Rhinos swept their way to the seventh division title in team history.

El Paso has been downright lethal this season, going 44-2-0 in the regular season, with their only two losses at a neutral site in Las Vegas and went a perfect 4-0-0 over the two divisional playoff rounds. They haven’t lost since the showcase and are perfect so far in 2014, having now won 28 consecutive games since that loss to Fresno back on December 20. They are tough anywhere you have to play them but are even deadlier on home ice, where they haven’t lost in over a calendar year.

With their rowdy fans behind them, the Rhinos swept their way through the post-season, as they dispatched the Dallas Snipers and Texas Brahmas with relative ease.

Once again, the team showed no real weaknesses and is getting better in the discipline department, as the players seem to understand that their bloated penalty numbers can hurt them against the skilled opponents they’ll face in the Thorne Cup Finals.

The Plesa brothers headline the team up front and MatthewNick and Peter have been nearly unstoppable in their first season in El Paso, making no-look passes and sharp re-directs look easy.

You know a team is deep at the forward position when Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma, the top two scorers for the San Diego Gulls when Cory Herman swooped them up at the trade deadline, are contributing on your third line.

Others rounding out the group include David NelsonJiri PestukaTom Bartel and Austin Hoff, helping all four lines show the ability to score in bunches and play with a physical edge.

Herman’s defensive corps also features very few holes, with veteran Chris Wilhite headlining a group that has really rounded out their offensive game this season, withJack StruszRoman Konecny and Kalvis Ozols all lighting the lamp with frequency.

The duo of Adam Vay and Bryce Fink is arguably the league’s best in net and each has been terrific throughout the post-season, giving Herman a true 1A and 1B in between the pipes.

Heavy favorites, the Rhinos will play all three of their round-robin games in the 7:30 PM slot, which should mean plenty of fans will be able to make their way out to the Events Center. They’ll open on Wednesday against the Idaho Jr. Steelheads in what was once considered to be the premiere match-up. With Idaho struggling of late, it isn’t the headliner it could have been but the Jr. Steelheads did beat the Rhinos 4-1 back on December 18, so it should still be interesting. The Rhinos will then take on the Phoenix Knights, who they’re 4-0-0 against this season, on Thursday and finish up against the Texas Brahmas on Friday, a team they went 6-0-0 against in the regular season and recently swept in the divisional finals.

El Paso has also played the other two teams in the event previously this season, as they came from behind to beat Ogden 4-1 on December 19 and lost by a score of 4-1 to Fresno the next day.

I’ve had a few coaches recently tell me that it would be almost impossible to take a series from El Paso this year but the Thorne Cup Finals is a short tournament and one bad game, or a few bad bounces could be the end of the run, so the Rhinos will certainly have to be on top of their game, as anyone can jump up and bite them.

2. Fresno Monsters (Western Division Champions)

One of only two teams to beat the Rhinos this season, the Fresno Monsters look more the part of a champion contender than ever and the Western Division Champions will be making their third straight Thorne Cup Finals appearance after sweeping their way through the divisional rounds.

Despite great regular seasons and Thorne Cup Finals appearances in each of the last three years, the Monsters haven’t been at their best in the post-season and it’s been a riddle head coach Bryce Dale has struggled to solve.

If the two divisional playoff rounds this season are any indication, it seems he has figured it out. Dale brought back a large cast of veterans and mixed in a great class of newcomers to make his Monsters the best all-around team we’ve probably every seen out of Fresno and they haven’t shown any signs of slowing down.

The Monsters cruised atop the Western Division for much of the regular season and only had to fight off one late season scare, as the Ontario Avalanche made a push for the number one spot late in the season but ultimately fell short, as Fresno claimed yet another division title, behind a record of 37-5-4.

After opening up the playoffs with a sweep of the Long Beach Bombers, a team many thought could pull off the upset, the Monsters then made a statement in the divisional finals, clobbering the Ontario Avalanche, the same team that had won two of three against the Monsters just a few weeks earlier.

Unlike last year, where they came into the Thorne Cup banged up and defeated, after losing to the Bay Area Seals the divisional finals, the Monsters enter the 2014 event feeling good and looking like a true contender.

Their offense is as stacked as anyone’s and although not as physical as El Paso, the Monsters can put the puck in the net just as much, with all four lines contributing.

Rookies Mike Nolan and Evan Ingram have been terrific from the outset and each has been strong in the playoffs, while veterans like Mike FabieAustin Browning,Filip WinklerJustin Plate and Jordan Fontaine can all get hot in a hurry and depth players like Conner Osborne and Nico Wilton add the grit.

The defensive unit is strong in all facets, with veterans Gunnar DircksMichael FreemanCory SikichMark Shroyer and Dan Fitzgerald, combining with newcomerAnthony Pena to make up a stout group that can do a little bit of everything.

Goaltending was an issue in the Long Beach series but Austin Piquette turned things around against Ontario, allowing one goal in each game to pick up the two wins, whileJerry Kaukinen is a solid option behind him and as we’ve seen in these quick events, having two strong goaltenders is a must.

They’ll open up the event on Wednesday with the 11 AM slot against the Texas Brahmas, a team they have yet to face this season and all eyes will be on them on Thursday, as they renew their long-time rivalry with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads at 3PM, a team that beat them three out of four times this season.

They’ll finish up the round robin on Friday with a 3 PM clash with the Phoenix Knights, who they beat 4-3 on December 19 in Las Vegas.

The Monsters are also one of only two teams to beat the hosts this season, as they took down the Rhinos 4-1 on December 20 in Las Vegas and also swept the Ogden Mustangs on the road in late January/early February.

A determined team, the Monsters have been one of the WSHL’s elite since entering the league in 2009 but can they finally take home a Thorne Cup?

3. Ogden Mustangs (Northwest Division Champions)

The Ogden Mustangs head to El Paso as a team oozing with confidence, as they won the Northwest Division title by beating the three-time defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads on their home ice in McCall, a feat that had not previously been done.

After another steady regular season, in which they finished second in the Northwest Division thanks to a victory over Idaho in their final game of the regular season, Ogden began the playoffs by welcoming in the rival Salt Lake City Moose, for a series many believed would come right down to the wire.

Jake Laime’s boys, who have looked like they were on the verge of big things for quite some time, turned it up against the Moose, got some big saves from goaltenderTyler Fallica and swept Salt Lake City out of the playoffs with two solid wins.

The Mustangs then traveled to McCall, Idaho, to face the three-time defending champion Jr. Steelheads the next weekend and shocked the hockey world by taking both games once again, against a team that had previously never lost a playoff series on home ice.

With the first of what will surely be many division banners already under their belt, the Mustangs head into El Paso determined to cap off the season with a Thorne Cup.

Like El Paso and Fresno, Ogden also has plenty of forward depth, with Simon TeodorssonJimmy PeplinskiBrody DeckerCraig Moore and Jon Mencer joining veterans Schuyler SeyfertSean Haltam and Dusty Watt to help carry the load, with someone different stepping up each time out. They have size, they have speed and they are playing like a team possessed.

One of the biggest keys to Ogden’s success has been the offense they’ve gotten from their defensemen, with captain David Clements leading a group that is responsible in their own end and lethal at the other. Mike KowickiGeorge BabosCam RussellCharlie Reed and the aforementioned Clements all finished the regular season with double digits in scoring.

Fallica has been the guy in net for the second straight year and has been on top of his game over the last few weeks. Not very big, he relies on his athleticism to make saves and continually stands on his head to get the job done.

The Mustangs open the round robin with a 3 PM game against the Phoenix Knights on Wednesday, a team they have yet to face this season and come back Thursday at 11 AM against Texas, who defeated them 2-1 in Las Vegas.

They’ll finish up on Friday with a re-match of the Northwest Division finals against the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, a team they failed to best over their first 15 tries but have now taken four out of the last five meetings, including both playoff games.

They are 0-2-1 against Fresno, who came to town in late January and lost 4-1 to El Paso in Las Vegas.

The Mustangs may have taken a couple seasons to reach their peak but Laime has his team earning the “team of destiny” moniker and they won’t stop until they reach the Thorne Cup, so taking them down will be a task for anyone.

4. Phoenix Knights (Mountain Division Champions)

Although they don’t always make it easy on themselves, the Phoenix Knights capped off a terrific first season under Tyler Ramsey with a Mountain Division title, despite falling behind 1-0 in each of their divisional round playoff series.

When on top of their game, the Knights have the talent and grit to beat anyone in the league but when they take shifts off and fall behind in games, they struggle to find consistency.

The Knights were 16-2-0 going into the showcase in Las Vegas but slowed down after the annual mid-season event, despite going 2-2-0, which included a monumental win over Idaho.

Phoenix then opened 2014 by going winless over their first six games of the year, only to bounce back, steady the ship and hang on for the division title.

After falling behind 1-0 to Boulder in the opening round, the Knights torched the Bison on Saturday and finished off the series with a win on Sunday and did the same to the Colorado Jr. Eagles the next week to earn the first division championship since the team changed ownership, the name and logo, in order to further distance itself from the old Polar Bears organization.

Now carving out their own winning tradition, expect the Knights to put up a fight against whoever they face, as their forwards can score with anyone, led by Jordan Cullum, one of the league’s best over the last season and a half.

They also boast one of the hottest players in the league at the moment, in Ryan McNeely, who finished the regular season with points in his last 11 straight games, including 20 over his last five and followed that up with 10 points in six playoff games.

Also playing well are the two big additions that came over in deadline deals from the nearby Arizona Redhawks, forwards Mitch Cobby and Mattias Marten, both of whom took their game to another level in the Colorado series, while Max MahoodRobert SmithBrynton MacNabRobert Crisci and Matt Gamblin have all chipped in as well.

The Knights can also put the puck in the net from the blue line, led by captain Kelby Minshull, who is trusted in all situations by his coach and Brennan Johnsson, who has really rounded out his offensive game this season. Others like Tanner BranchCharlie Allen and Nick Kujawa provide veteran leadership, while also showing offensive abilities themselves.

Goaltending has been a bit of an issue since Troy Anderson was shipped off to Arizona to complete the deal that brought Marten to town, leaving veteran Alex Taylor to assume most of his minutes. Taylor hasn’t been bad but he also hasn’t been spectacular, playing well through the remainder of the regular season before going 0-2-0 in the playoffs thus far, with losses in each of the series openers.

Meanwhile, Luke Stripp, a late season addition from British Columbia, is 4-0-0 in the post-season, as he came on in each series to take the final two games and is likely the starter moving forward.

Phoenix’ road to the semi-final round won’t be easy, as they face Ogden at 3 PM on Wednesday, El Paso at 7:30 PM on Thursday and Fresno at 3 PM on Friday.

They have yet to face the Mustangs this season, are 0-1-2 against the Rhinos in three tight games and 0-1-0 against Fresno, losing 4-3 on December 19.

They are also 1-0-0 against both Texas and Idaho, with both wins coming in Las Vegas, which shows that when the Knights get everything clicking, they are among the leagues best.

Consistency is the Knights Achilles’ heel, if they can start strong and keep it up throughout, they can more than contend but if they get behind the eight ball early, they may not have a chance to dig out this time around.

5. Idaho Jr. Steelheads (Northwest Division runners-up, wild card)

Despite not winning their division, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads still have a chance to win their fourth consecutive Thorne Cup Title in El Paso, as the current Thorne Cup and United Hockey Union Champions earned a berth as the wild card team.

Not a team you ever want to sleep on, the Jr. Steelheads put together a strong regular season in Kyle Grabowski’s first year at the helm, despite losing a few of their top players as it went along.

A record of 39-5-2 had them second to only El Paso in the league and they once again opened the playoffs at home in McCall, Idaho, where the advantage is huge.

After it took them three games to dispatch the fourth-seeded Missoula Maulers, the Jr. Steelheads welcomed in the red-hot Ogden Mustangs, who came into town and shocked everyone by sweeping the series and departing with the Northwest Division title.

Idaho earned their place in finals this year as the wild card team, due to them owning the best regular season record out of the four teams that fell in the divisional finals. Getting in on a wild card berth isn’t exactly what they set out for at the start of the season but they’re happy to still be playing.

Not as skilled as they once were, the Jr. Steelheads rely on their intricate systems play to get the job done, as they are sound positionally, rarely run around, capitalize on mistakes and limit opponents’ chances, as they gave up the fewest shots on goal in the league during the regular season.

They still have scorers, don’t get me wrong, as Dak DiceVictor CarlssonHunter LesterMacky Power and Bryan Hodges can all put the puck in the net but they don’t have any Stefan Brucato’s walking through the door to completely take over a game for them.  One of the few bright spots in the series against Ogden was the play of role players, like Randy Patzner and Jesper Jensen, both of whom have been on their game as of late but Grabowski is still looking for more players to step up and help carry the slack that was left when guys guys like Kirk Van Arkel, Jan Blasko and August Von Ungern-Sternberg departed.

Ben Hull was fantastic during the two divisional rounds for Idaho, as he notched six points from the backend and is turning into one of their most consistent performers but few others chip in from the blue line, another big change for Idaho.

They’re still very solid on the backend however, as veterans Anton Virtanen and Victor Ivarsson have been steady, as have newcomers Dmitiris JonesOskar Af Bjurand Ian Patrican, all of whom can skate well and limit shots with positioning and great stick work.

Sean Healy hadn’t lost back-to-back games in goal all season, before the Mustangs got to him in the divisional finals. He’s still one of the league’s best and his regular season numbers prove that but he’s got to get his confidence back. Back-up Danny Kowalski also struggled in the playoffs but has been a solid option for most of the year.

Idaho opens up Wednesday against El Paso at 7:30 PM, a team they beat 4-1 on December 18 and then take on the rival Fresno Monsters at 3 PM on Thursday, who they went 3-1-0 against in the regular season.

They’ll finish up the round robin with a re-match against Ogden, as they look to avenge the sweep in the divisional finals.

Idaho was also upset 5-1 by Phoenix on December 20 in Las Vegas and have yet to face Texas.

Wounded or not, there’s a reason they’re the three-time defending champs and if they can get back to basics and thrive within their systems like everyone knows they can, they’ll be as tough to beat as ever.

6. Texas Brahmas (Midwest Division runners-up, received berth with El Paso already having entry into event as hosts)

The Texas Brahmas punched their ticket to the Thorne Cup Finals when they took down the rival Dallas Ice Jets in the opening round of the playoffs over two weeks ago, setting up a clash with the Rhinos for the division tittle the next week, with both teams having a spot in the finals regardless of the outcome.

Although they came up short and finished as runners-up, they were assured of a spot, with El Paso already in with the automatic hosts’ bid.

The Brahmas have had an inconsistent year akin to that of the Phoenix Knights, as at times, they look like they can play with anyone and at others, they struggle to put it all together.

Jeremy Law has done an excellent job of helping his team find some chemistry, even with all of the roster movement between them and the NAHL franchise of the same name and they were able to figure it out down the stretch and carry their momentum into the playoffs.

Not as physical as they once were but definitely more talented, the Brahmas finished the regular season third in the division and opened up the playoffs on the road, albeit close to home, against the Dallas Ice Jets.

After dropping game one in Grapevine, the Brahmas fought back to win the final two games over a team that had once had their number, despite being outshot in all three contests, to move on and face the Rhinos for the division title.

With a spot in the finals already guaranteed, the Brahmas fought hard in El Paso during the division finals but lost by scores of 7-0 and 5-2, with game two proving they can hang with the tough Rhinos.

They have a good mix of skill and grit up front but need some of their more talented players to step up, including Miguel Caron, who is as skilled a player this league will see but suffers from inconsistency and has been quiet in the post-season.

Sebastien Tremblay has been the Brahmas best forward since coming to the team late in the season and the feisty French Canadian was right in the thick of things against the Rhinos, while veterans Landyn Howze and Dalton Foster play a strong two-way game.

They’ll also need small but skilled guys like Eric Lewis and Austin Murray to put the puck in the net, as each can create their own chances, while Seth Ensor and Chris Stovall, two of their better players against El Paso, can both bring the pain.

Defensively they have struggled, especially since they gave up two key d-men to acquire Caron back in October but they have gotten better of late.

Although offense is almost non-existent from the backend, Cody LetsingerJesse FoskeyJimmy AndersonKeith Bendall and Jeremy Quenneville are all steady d-men that don’t take many chances and are sound positionally. I really liked the way Ian Atrencio played in El Paso during the divisional finals, as he got into a few post-whistle skirmishes, while trying to pump his team up, something they need more of going forward; fire.

Veteran Oliver Eklund is the steadier of the two goaltenders on the roster but Ryan Mulka has the big-save ability he doesn’t. Each is solid and if on top of their game, can steal one but they’ll need some help around them to get it done.

Texas knows how to compete against top teams and were at their best in Las Vegas during the showcase, where they beat Ogden and lost in overtime to Phoenix.

They’ll open up at 11 AM against Fresno on Wednesday, a team they have yet to play this season, will face Ogden at the same time on Thursday, who they beat 2-1 on December 20 and will match-up with the Rhinos again on Friday at 7:30 PM, a team they went 0-6-0 against in the regular season and obviously, were swept by in the playoffs.

The Brahmas are also 0-0-1 against Phoenix this season and have yet to play Idaho.

Again, in such a short tournament, no team is to be overlooked and Texas, especially if they can get some of their more offensive players going, can certainly be the surprise team, much like the Bay Area Seals in 2013 and Dallas Ice Jets in 2012.

Schedule (all games available live via fasthockey.com)

Comprising “Bracket A” are the #1 seed El Paso Rhinos, #2 seed Fresno Monsters and #3 seed Ogden Mustangs, while the #4 seed Phoenix Knights, #5 seed Idaho Jr. Steelheads and #6 seed Texas Brahmas make up “Bracket B.”

Each team in Bracket A will face each team from Bracket B, over the three days of the partial round-robin stage, which will begin on Wednesday April 2 and run through Friday April 4, with games slotted at 11:00 AM, 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM each day (all times MST.)  

Partial Round-Robin schedule:

Wednesday April 2 (Designated home team listed first)

11 AM- Fresno Monsters vs. Texas Brahmas

3 PM- Ogden Mustangs vs. Phoenix Knights

7:30 PM- El Paso Rhinos vs. Idaho Jr. Steelheads

Thursday April 3

11 AM- Texas Brahmas vs. Ogden Mustangs

3 PM- Idaho Jr. Steelheads vs. Fresno Monsters

7:30 PM- Phoenix Knights vs. El Paso Rhinos

Friday April 4

11 AM- Ogden Mustangs vs. Idaho Jr. Steelheads

3 PM- Fresno Monsters vs. Phoenix Knights

7:30 PM- El Paso Rhinos vs. Texas Brahmas

After the partial round robin portion concludes, the top four teams will then move to the semi-finals on Saturday April 5, with the highest seed facing the lowest seed and the #2 and #3 seeds meeting, with game slots at 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM.

The two semi-final winners will then meet for the Thorne Cup on Sunday April 6 at 4:30 PM, with each assured of a spot in the United Hockey Union National Championships, which begin April 16 in Las Vegas, Nevada.