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The way El Paso and Boulder had dealt haymakers to each other in their three-game series this weekend, it was only appropriate that Sunday's rubber match went to sudden-death shootout.
In the end, Rhinos' forward Taylor Barger wristed a top-shelf strike over Bison goalie Zane Sampson's glove in the ninth frame of the shootout to win the game for the home team, 4-3, and the series, 2-1.
Again, special teams played a huge role for both teams -- all three Boulder goals came on the power play. El Paso had one power play goal and two short-handed goals on the afternoon -- the Rhinos' league-leading 33rd and 34th of the season.
Austin Snedder opened the scoring on the power play for the visitors just 2:01 into the game, but El Paso's Tyler Brady backhanded a Bison turnover for the short-handed equalizer at 9:08.
The Rhinos scored twice in the second period -- Mike Rivera on the power play at 7:36 and John Ludwig short-handed at 17:53 -- to give El Paso a 3-1 lead at second intermission, but Boulder roared back in the third.
Oleg Hayduk beat new Rhinos' netminder Kiefer Giroux just 56 seconds into the third and, after Ludwig missed a penalty shot, Deon Kidd scored at 15:36 to tie the game, 3-3.
El Paso gave Boulder 12 power plays on the night, something Rhinos' head coach Cory Herman doesn't want to see as El Paso pushes toward the playoffs.
In the end, though, the 5-8 Giroux stood tall, stopping six of the Bison's nine shots in shootout, and Barger ended a nail-biter for the 1,716 in attendance with the game-winning, series-clinching goal.
Boulder (21-14-1-2, 45 points) takes away a point after the shootout loss to move within two of the second place Cheyenne Stampede in the Mountain Conference -- important for home-ice advantage as both teams look to be in the WSHL's Thorne Cup playoffs.
El Paso improves to 31-7-0-2, and the Rhinos' 64 points gives them a magic number of one. With El Paso leading the Mountain Conference by 17, the Rhinos would have to lose every game while Cheyenne would have to win all nine of its remaining games for the full 18 points. Any combination of an El Paso win or a Cheyenne loss gives the Rhinos their first Mountain Conference title in their first year in the conference.
El Paso previously won the Mid-West Conference championship every year it competed in the Western States Hockey League.
The Rhinos return to action in two weeks for their final regular season home series against the Phoenix Knights. For tickets and information, contact the front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com
Follow the link for the official stats, courtesy of PointStreak.com: http://pointstreak.com/prostats/boxscore.html?gameid=2031460
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