The Dallas Ice Jets scored twice just 39 seconds apart in the second period to break open a tie game, and beat the El Paso Rhinos, 5-3, at the Events Center Friday night.
Though the Rhinos (34-7-2, 70 points) have sewn up home ice advantage throughout the WSHL's Thorne Cup Playoffs, Dallas (25-12-4, 54 points) is still hungry to assure their own position in the Mid-West Conference, and to send a message to their hosts for the future.
El Paso's Trey Hughes opened the scoring at 4:43 of the first, single-handedly cleaning up his own turnover in the Dallas zone, then firing the puck past Ice Jets' goalie Michael Baldwin.
Dallas' Johnny Henson tied the score at 8:44 of the first, though, followed by a power play goal from Brandon Unser at 11:55, giving the Ice Jets a 2-1 lead.
Rhinos' winger Eric Miller scored at 16:54, using a Dallas defenseman to screen his shot and beating Baldwin above the left shoulder to tie the game, 2-2, going into the first intermission.
Disaster struck for El Paso in the second frame, though, as Richard Bohan was last to touch the puck on an awkward carom in the El Paso zone. The puck bounced off Rhinos' forward John Morales before he had a chance to react, then bouncing by goaltender Trent Caspar to give the visitors the lead for good at 6:09.
Less than a minute later, Austin Azurdia notched the game-winner, taking a cross-ice pass from Unser and hammering a one-time blast past Caspar at 6:48.
Matt Tritsch scored an amazing top-shelf goal to get one back for El Paso at 13:13 of the third period, crashing in from low left circle and finding a four-inch space above Baldwin's left shoulder to give the Events Center crowd hope.
But as El Paso pulled Caspar for the extra attacker to press for the equalizer, Trey Hughes was double-teamed by two opportunistic Ice Jets in front of the empty Rhinos goal. The resulting turnover gave Christian Elsborg perhaps the easiest empty-net goal he'll ever score, as he merely scooped the loose puck from the crease to the net to finish El Paso at 19:39.
Baldwin finished the night with 35 saves on 38 shots, stoning no fewer than three Rhinos' breakaways to earn his 16th win.
The two teams will play twice more, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MST and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. MST.
For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos' front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com .