UTAH TAKES ONE FROM DEFENDING CHAMPS
The Utah Outliers returned from El Paso, Texas after taking on the defending champions, the El Paso Rhinos. Utah did not come back with the results they wanted, however did manage to pick up a win on the road in a hostile environment. The two teams have played one game prior to the weekend, when they met last year in the Thorne Cup Playoffs. El Paso was able to come away with a 3-2 win in what was a tremendous game before winning the semi-finals and finals to lift the trophy. With this past weekend in the books, the Outliers remain in second place in the Mountain Division with a 10-7-1 record. For the team, it is back to a hard week of practice as they prepare to welcome in division rival the Casper Bobcats for a three game set at the Acord Ice Arena.
Going into El Paso, Utah was aware of their opponents and knew all three games would be an absolute battle. The Rhinos had just come back from a road trip to Long Beach, California where they suffered their first sweep in team history. In the first period, that resiliency was apparent as they come out firing, launching pucks on net from all over the ice, mustering 14 shots. The Outliers had some quality looks, however did not get the same quantity as their hosts. Although the shots were 14-5 after the first, the teams skated to their respective locker rooms at a 0-0 stalemate. In the second period, a powerplay goal gave the Rhinos the lead, and within a minute, the home team doubled that lead. In recent history, the quick goals would usually trigger an onslaught of offense, however the Outlier defense would not allow any more pucks to find the net. Unfortunately for Utah, team offense could also not find the back of the net themselves. The last period of the game saw a shift in momentum as the Outliers controlled the puck and out chanced their opponents, but goaltender Nils Velm would not be beat, picking up a shutout in the 2-0 El Paso win.
Carrying the momentum from the third period of game one, the Outliers looked to set the tone early and struck first just over two minutes into the contest. A great entry into the zone saw the puck head towards the blue line where Brad McCloskey put it on net through a bunch of screens, scoring his first of the season. Halfway into the first, Utah doubled their lead off a faceoff goal, courtesy of Anthony Masanotti. The Rhinos did not relent as they capitalized on a fortunate bounce, scoring a shorthanded goal and sending the teams to the intermission with a 2-1 Outlier lead. In the second frame, it was déjà vu as another bad bounce allowed the home team to score yet another shorthanded goal, evening the game at 2. The score remained the same throughout the second and into the third period, setting up some extra hockey in overtime. While in OT, Zach Dornseifer was tripped, giving Utah a rare 4-3 powerplay, and the team was not about to let the game slip away. Some hard work by Dylan Dix gave him the space to find Jakub Lelek at the point, who did a great job avoiding pressure and finding leading goal scorer Matt Bartel in the slot. Bartel hammered the puck over Vilm, and gave Utah the win. Oscar Wahlgren picked up 22 saves in the win, Vilm earned 29 saves in defeat.
The final game of the series started out perfect for the home team, as within 7 minutes the Rhinos were able to score 3 goals. Utah did not give up however, as the team would rally around young net minder Jack Walsh who came on in relief and would give the visitors a chance to come back. Early in the second period, a Jake Papesh shot found Zak Albers, who tipped the puck into the net and put the Outliers on the board. The rest of the second period saw a very defensive battle as only 13 shots were put on net (7 for UT / 6 for EP). Heading into the last frame of the series, once again it was the Outliers who would strike early, as Jan Dvorak buried a Christian Bundschuh rebound, bringing the team within one. With just over ten minutes remaining in the game, a Rhino shot was snagged by Walsh, however as he went to move out of the way, the puck dropped and was whacked in, regaining El Paso’s 2 goal lead and sealing the win. The flow of the game did not go in Utah’s favor, as 40 penalties were called throughout the game, creating a tough stop and go pace that the boys in black are not used to. Walsh picked up 20 saves in relief, and once again Vilm stood tall earning his second win of the weekend.
Utah returns home to Salt Lake City this weekend as they prepare for their first look at the newly named Casper Bobcats. Casper has not had the start they were hoping for, currently sitting with a record of 3-9-0. This weekend will be a battle of two teams that believe they should be doing more, and for both teams it will be a test to see what can they do to improve their mark on the league. Game one puck drop is set for 7:00 PM Friday night. Be sure not to miss out on another great weekend of fast paced hockey action.