The Rhinos overcame a disastrous first period to score five unanswered goals and El Paso roared back to double the Bay Area Seals, 6-3, in its opening game at the Thorne Cup Finals in McCall, ID, Thursday night.
Taking a rash of penalties to open the contest, the Rhinos found themselves behind 2-0 in the first five minutes of the game.
Martin Vachal scored 55 seconds into the game and Wes Starr scored on the power play at 4:26 before Austin Hoff could get El Paso on the board at 11:30, one-timing a draw won by Mike Rivera over goaltender Filip Orcik's glove.
But the Rhinos' were caught with too many men on the ice and it took Filip Ondracek less than a minute to give the Seals a 3-1 lead going into the locker room after just 20 minutes.
"I thought we came out really flat. Got into some penalty trouble and started to stray from our system," said El Paso head coach Cory Herman. "We obviously never got the start we wanted, but we refocused and got on track."
It took only 29 seconds into the second frame to show that the fire was lit. That's when Rhinos' team captain Mike Rivera scored the first of three power play goals as El Paso firmly put the shoe on the other foot. Rivera's goal was followed one minute later by David Nelson's equalizer and the Rhinos had pulled all the way back.
After El Paso committed six of the eight penalties in the first period, Bay Area committed all five penalties in the second, including a boarding major that earned top scorer Martin Vachal a game misconduct and an early shower.
Though the Rhinos couldn't take advantage of the 5:00 power play, the Seals' Mark DeVaughn's elbowing minor at 18:33 set the stage for Johnny Morales' game-winner just six seconds into the man advantage.
Rivera scored his second of the game at 6:18 of the third and Chad Cesarz added a shorthanded goal at 11:33 to round out the scoring.
El Paso's recovery did not inspire its coach.
"The guys followed the game plan and we played a pretty solid 40 minutes of the game, but at this point in the season we need to play 60 minutes," said Herman. "We can’t expect to win big games by only playing 40 minutes."
The Rhinos will play the Fresno Monsters at noon MDT Friday. Fresno lost to the homestanding Idaho Junior Steelheads Thursday night, 4-3.
El Paso currently stands as the top seed with the best goal differential (+3) of the six teams at the Thorne Cup, but lost to the Monsters, 3-1, at the Western States Hockey League Holiday Showcase in Las Vegas, NV, last December.
Click the link for Thursday's stats, courtesy of PointStreak: http://pointstreak.com/prostats/boxscore.html?gameid=2171875