One of the lighter weekends of the year featured some of the most competitive hockey we’ve seen thus far and after the dust had settled, only two undefeated teams were left.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
El Paso Rhinos (11-3-1, 1st in Mountain Division) @ Idaho Jr. Steelheads (13-1-0, 1st in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in McCall, Idaho
One of the most anticipated series of the season lived up to its billing, as the physical El Paso Rhinos made their first-ever appearance in McCall, Idaho for three games against the back-to-back Thorne Cup Champs.
After three exhilarating games, Idaho came out on top but El Paso was able to end their perfect run, with a solid performance on Sunday.
The opening game of the series was as close as it can get, as the rough style of the Rhinos clashed against the precision that the Jr. Steelheads have showcased since entering the league.
Matej Steigauf’s power play goal, scored 7:38 into the second period, gave the Rhinos their second lead of the game, as the visitors headed to the third period with a 2-1 lead.
Idaho came out blazing in the third but were continually turned away by El Paso goaltender Austin Brihn, who started the season slowly but has really come on as of late.
With the Jr. Steelheads perfect record in jeopardy late in regulation, third-year forward Ivo Chrak scored with 1:33 left to force overtime and eventually a shootout.
In the shootout, Stefan Brucato and Jan Blasko each scored for Idaho, while only Mikey Rivera was able to beat Blake Mendenhall for El Paso, as the Steelies took the 3-2 shootout win.
Tyler Basham and David Nelson both tallied first period goals for the Rhinos in game two, pacing El Paso to a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes of play.
The Jr. Steelheads offense awoke in the second period and scored five times, including three from leading scorer Stefan Brucato and took a 6-3 lead into the third.
Kirk Van Arkel notched the lone goal of the period, as Idaho won game two by a score of 7-3, while scoring three power play goals over 10 opportunities.
Idaho had to lose sooner or later and El Paso put together a full 60 minutes of hockey in the series finale and won by a score of 5-3, while outshooting the hosts 47-32.
The Rhinos scored the first five goals of the game and led 5-0 just 2:17 into the third period, before Idaho mounted a bit of a comeback but ultimately fell short.
Picking up any points in McCall is a small miracle but the Rhinos grabbed three on the weekend and played playoff style hockey, the kind of stuff head coach Cory Herman dreams of.
All four lines were rolling for the Rhinos and although they got into penalty trouble at times, goaltender Austin Brihn bailed them out more often than not.
They currently sit atop of their division and look like a much better team than they were last season, when they won the Midwest Division.
Despite the one loss, Idaho is still the team to beat in the league and showed it against a very good hockey team.
Blake Mendenhall was great in net, while seeing a lot more shots than he’s used to.
Stefan Brucato picked up six points on the weekend and regained his spot as the league leader in scoring, now with 41 points in 14 games played.
They depart on a lengthy California road trip later this week, where they’ll play this weekend at San Diego, before heading to Valencia, for three over the week of Thanksgiving against the Flyers.
This was truly one of the best series you’ll see at any level and I wouldn’t be surprised if these two meet again in the playoffs.
Phoenix Knights (7-9-2, 3rd in Mountain Division) @ New Mexico Renegades (6-5-1, T-4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Rio Rancho, New Mexico
The Phoenix Knights looked to get back on the winning track, as they took to the road for three games against the New Mexico Renegades, in what was another fun series to watch.
The Knights led 2-0 heading into the third period of game one, before Wyatt Watkins and Luc Fournier scored for New Mexico to tie the game at two, just 1:18 into the period.
Evan Smith answered just nine seconds later for the Knights, giving them a 3-2 lead and they never looked back, scoring twice more in a 5-2 victory.
George Tedford stopped 37 of 39 shots in the win, which is his first as member of the Knights.
Colin Bresnehan’s power play goal paced the Knights to a first period lead in game two but the Renegades fired back with two in the second and two in the third, as they went on to win it by a score of 4-1.
Dakota Beaulieu, Zach Comfort and Cody Miller each tallied two points and goaltender Tyler George turned aside 28 of 29 shots, in the New Mexico victory.
The finale was filled with offense, as the two teams combined for 112 shots on goal and went all the way to a shootout before a winner emerged.
Dakota Beaulieu notched three goals and an assist but not to be outdone, Nick Kujawa scored four goals of his own for Phoenix, including two in the third period to force overtime.
After overtime solved nothing, Cody Miller’s goal in the fifth round of the shootout won the game and series for the Renegades.
The Phoenix Knights are slowly getting back to full health and looked much better this weekend, in a very physical and often times chippy series.
Veteran defenseman Nick Kujawa picked up seven points on the weekend and now leads all defenseman in the league with 22 points.
It was a penalty filled series but head coach Kurt Goar won’t be happy with his team being shorthanded 24 times over the three games.
In all however, it seems they are back on track and in the hunt again.
The Renegades are flat out solid and they don’t have to rely on Kenny Orlando to do it all for them, as they often did last season.
Cody Miller and Zach Comfort both had solid weekends, while Dakota Beaulieu and Luc Fournier continued their steady play.
They have a very young defensive corps and although the scoresheet may not show it, they did an admirable job against a speedy Phoenix offense and their goaltenders made some timely saves.
Cliff Cook and John McCreary have this team playing hard every night and right in the thick of things in the Mountain Division.
Texas Jr. Brahmas (6-11-2, T-2nd in Midwest Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (6-2-1, T-4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
The Texas Jr. Brahmas started the season off poorly, to say the least but this weekend in Wyoming, they may have gotten exactly what they need to turn their season around.
Everyone knew they had the talent, size and coaching to win hockey games and this weekend they put it all together, as they took two of three from a very good Cheyenne Stampede squad.
Despite there being a large amount of shots in the series opener, it was a defensive battle as most of the chances came from the outside, with both defenses on top of their game.
After a scoreless first period, Noah Eckebrecht continued his hot play, as he picked up his sixth goal of the season, giving the Stampede a 1-0 lead after 40 minutes of play.
Russell Armbruster’s power play marker, scored just 1:14 into the third period, gave the Stampede a 2-0 lead and behind solid goaltending from Sam Mallory, they were able to hold on and win the opener by a score of 2-1.
The Stampede were much better offensively in game two and actually outshot the visiting Brahmas 38-21 but were stymied by the goaltending of Iain Lamb and Texas made the most of their chances, in a 5-3 victory.
A couple of veterans stepped up for the Brahmas and led the way, as Seth Ensor and Landyn Howze each collected two points in the big victory, their first since an October 14 win over Tulsa.
The rubber game of the series was much like the first, as both teams played tight the entire game but Landyn Howze scored 16 seconds into the third period and goaltender Zane Sampson stopped all 46 shots he faced after coming in for Lamb, as the Brahmas won by a score of 2-1.
The Stampede played well enough to win each game and outshot the Brahmas 129-77 on the weekend but struggled to put the puck in the net.
It was a tough series for the Stampede but they continue to play solid hockey and I still believe there’s little doubt that this team will make the playoffs.
The Brahmas a couple of wins in a big way and they got what they’ve needed from their veterans.
Landyn Howze and Seth Ensor led by example all weekend, as they both scored timely goals and Ensor dropped the gloves in game two to get his team going.
Both Iain Lamb and Zane Sampson played well in net and kept them in games, giving their offense a chance to steal a win.
If they can get hot and keep the momentum going, they’ll surely look back on the weekend in Cheyenne as a turning point in their season.
Boulder Bison (9-4-2, 2nd in Mountain Division) @ Arizona Redhawks (2-13-3, 6th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Peoria, Arizona
Another team in desperate need of a season-changing moment was the Arizona Redhawks and although they won only once, they put together a much better effort against the Boulder Bison.
The Redhawks came into the weekend having not won a game since beating the Boulder Bison back on September 29, in the season opening series for both teams but had a few players return from injury and put together a solid weekend of hockey in round two.
After a scoreless opening period in the series opener, Boulder jumped out to a 2-0 lead behind goals from Daniel Kelso and Ryan Gauthier, before TJ West pulled the Redhawks within one.
It was all Boulder in the third however, as four different players scored goals in a 6-1 victory.
Colin Champine continued his steady play in net for the Bison, stopping 21 of the 22 shots he faced in the victory, while top returner Ryan Gauthier collected three points to lead the offensive charge.
Much like the last time these two teams met, Arizona played exceptionally well in the middle game of the series but despite outshooting the Bison 40-18, they fell by a score of 3-2 in overtime.
After nobody found twine in the opening period, David Coleman’s power play marker gave the Bison a 1-0 lead after two periods of play.
After Justin Dunjey knotted the game at one, Daniel Kelso scored unassisted to give Boulder the lead back with 5:17 remaining in regulation.
As he’s been all season, TJ West was clutch for Arizona, scoring with 1:30 on the clock and forcing overtime.
Just 1:32 into the extra period, Chandler Yoder put one home to give Boulder the victory.
After the demoralizing defeat, the Redhawks could have easily laid down in the finale and allowed Boulder to sweep the series but they bounced back nicely.
Oscar Hagborn-Olsson scored on the power play, 2:09 into the third period and it was enough to send the two teams into overtime for the second straight game.
After the two teams went back and forth, Mitch Cobby played Mr. Clutch and scored with 2:59 left, lifting the Redhawks to the 2-1 win.
The Bison picked up five points on the weekend and gained some ground on the first-place Rhinos but would have liked to get the sweep.
They continued to show solid depth however and their goaltending continues to be top notch.
Arizona finished the weekend with three points but feel as though they should have gotten four.
They haven’t played this well since their opening weekend visit to Boulder and head coach Rob Powell has to like the resiliency his team showed.
They still have a lot of work to do to get back into the playoff hunt but a solid showing against one of the top teams in their division is a great start.
Seattle Totems (6-8-2, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (10-6-4, 2nd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Ogden, Utah
It was another series and another team looking for a momentum-changing weekend, as the Seattle Totems traveled to Ogden to take on the Mustangs for three divisional games.
After three of the closest contests you’ll ever see, the Totems skated off with two victories and five total points, which could bode huge for their confidence moving forward.
The Mustangs proved their worth in the opener and showed why they currently sit second in the Northwest Division, as they played outstanding in all areas.
Brandon Gregoire’s goal, scored 5:43 into the third period however, gave the Totems their first lead of the game, as Mike Murphy’s crew came on strong.
Veteran forward Kody Rodriguez answered for the Mustangs, tying the game with 5:19 left in regulation off assists from Bobby Chamberlain and Aaron Peters.
With neither team budging in overtime, after a Seattle goal had been waved off, the two teams went to a five-man shootout.
Both Bryce Fink of Seattle and Tyler Fallica of Ogden were fantastic during the 65 minutes of regulation but somebody had to lose and in the end, it was Fink, as Fallica stopped all five shooters he faced, while Schuyler Seyfert and Christian Kraus converted in a 3-2 Ogden victory.
Game two was much like the opener but the score was flipped, as Seattle reigned victorious in the shootout.
Connor Haney’s power play goal, scored with just 2:20 left in the third period, knotted the game at two and sent the two teams into overtime.
After overtime proved notching once again, Fink stopped all five Ogden shooters, while Haney and Michael Pijanowski converted for the visitors, in a 3-2 Seattle win.
As if it couldn’t get any better, the two division foes headed to a shootout in the series finale and once again, Fink was perfect, stopping all four Ogden shooters he faced, while Haney and Tyler Thompson beat Fallica, in another 3-2 Seattle shootout win.
I don’t recall ever seeing a three-game series end in three shootout victories but the fans in Ogden sure got their money’s worth.
I know the Mustangs would have liked to win more than one but they did pick up four points and keep pace with Idaho and Tyler Fallica was once against fantastic in net.
Seattle needed a couple of big wins and can thank Bryce Fink for the help.
After allowing two Ogden shooters to score in game one’s shootout, he stopped the next nine over the final two games, carrying his team to two victories.
Not only was Fink outstanding but Seattle put forth their best all-around effort of the season, with Connor Haney led the way offensively and scoring a couple of clutch goals.
This, much like what Texas was able to do in Cheyenne, could be the series that turns the Totems year around.
Dallas Ice Jets (14-0-0, 1st in Midwest Division) vs. Dallas Snipers (7-6-0T-2nd in Midwest Division)
Two-game series in Grapevine, Texas
The top two teams in the Midwest Division faced off against one another over the weekend, as the Dallas Snipers made the short trip to Grapevine for a pair of games against the perfect Dallas Ice Jets.
These two teams met just a couple of weeks back in a quick home-and-home series and although the Snipers have come a long way in their second season in the league, the Ice Jets proved they are still the team to beat.
This past weekend was more of the same, as the Ice Jets thoroughly dominated the Snipers, outscoring the visitors 16-0 over the two games and remaining perfect on the season.
Both teams took a ton of penalties on Friday night but the Ice Jets converted on 3 of their 22 (not a typo) power play chances in an 11-0 blowout.
Forward Connor Enciso collected four assists in the win, while goaltender Brody Sharp picked up the shutout in net.
Game two was much closer and the two teams were actually scoreless through 40 minutes of play, before the Ice Jets offense awoke to score five times in the third period.
Five different players scored in that period, as the jets continue to display their tremendous depth and Michael Baldwin stopped all 26 shots he faced, picking up the shutout win in net.
After playing the Ice Jets relatively close a few weeks back, the Snipers struggled to compete over the two games this past weekend.
It’s one thing to lose but to not even get on the board is a problem and I’m sure head coach Travis Clayton is not happy about it.
This is still a team that is much improved and I’m sure they will figure things out but they will need to get back to winning this weekend in New Mexico, especially with the Brahmas heating up.
The Ice Jets’ two wins, combined with an Idaho loss, leaves Paul Taylor’s crew as one of only two undefeated teams left, along with the Fresno Monsters.
The amazing thing about the Ice Jets, is that even in blowout victories, the scoring is evenly distributed throughout their lineup.
You’ll see good teams get blowout wins but usually the same names repeat over and over on the scoresheet but that is not the case with the Ice Jets, as different players step up each game.
I tried to find something to talk about that they can work on but I’ve got nothing and it’s not like they played a bottom-dweller either.
Pacific Division One-Gamers
Both games played in Valencia, California
Ontario Avalanche (9-8-0, 3rd in division) @ Valencia Flyers (9-5-1, 2nd in division)
The Ontario Avalanche made their first-ever appearance in Valencia on Friday night and came out victorious, behind a four-goal second period.
The host Flyers got off to a great start and carried play throughout the opening frame, which they led 1-0 after, thanks to a Jake Ryan goal.
The Avalanche came out rolling to start the second period, as Antoine Maillard, Taylor Emerick and Ryan Espinoza each scored in a span of less than four minutes, to give Ontario a 3-1 lead.
Maillard scored his second later in the period, sandwiched between two goals by Flyers’ forward Preston Nowak, as the Avalanche headed to the locker room up 4-3.
Valencia had their chances in the third but were continually turned away by goaltender Jesse Gordichuk and forward Alex Roihjert put one home for the visitors, as Ontario won 5-3.
Maillard picked up three points in the victory, as the Swiss-born forward continued his recent success in the victory, which pushed Ontario over .500 on the season.
San Diego Gulls (8-6-0, 4th in division) @ Valencia Flyers
The next night, the red-hot San Diego Gulls rolled into Valencia, where they looked to continue their eight-game winning streak.
It’s been well publicized that the Gulls began the year 0-5-0 and had won their last eight since but even more interesting, is how the point total from the top line of Justin Lazalde, Tyler Giovannetti and Zen Hamil correlates directly to their slow start and recent surge.
In their first five losses, the three veterans combined for just four points but amassed 49 combined points in the eight San Diego victories since; talk about carrying a team.
The trio got off to a great start in Valencia, as Hamil notched the lone goal in the opening period, with assists going to his two linemates.
Flyers head coach Jocelyn Langlois must have had some sort of talk with his team in between periods, as they came out on fire to begin the second period.
Tyler Lazarek, Ludovic Beaupre, Kevin Antipov and Austin Ehrlich each tallied goals and had put the Flyers ahead 4-1, just 4:06 into the period, forcing Craig Carlyle to pull starting goaltender Reed Kinsey.
Brian Walters entered the game and didn’t fare much better, as Antipov notched his second of the game, while Ehrlich scored twice more to complete his hat-trick, as the Flyers cruised to an 8-2 victory.
Stephen Palmer picked up the win in net, as the veteran stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced, as the Flyers snapped the Gulls’ streak and moved into second place behind Fresno.
Three-Stars of the Week
Honorable Mentions: Connor Enciso (DIJ), Stefan Brucato (IDA), Austin Brihn (ELP), Landyn Howze (TXB), Seth Ensor (TEX), Colin Champine (BOU), TJ West (ARZ), Antoine Maillard (ONT), Austin Ehrlich (VAL), Tyler Fallica (OGD)
Next weekend will feature some interesting inter-division matchups as well as some rivalry series that are sure to get your blood pumping; the weekend preview will be out on Thursday.
Story by Brent Maranto does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Western States Hockey League