The Idaho Junior Steelheads completed an unbeaten post season and captured the Thorne Cup as the Western States Hockey League Champion Saturday with a 4-2 victory over the El Paso Rhinos.
The team from Boise, made up of 17-20 year olds, won all six of their post season games after completing the regular season at the top of the WSHL standings. After defeating the San Diego Jr. Gulls in the Western Conference semi-finals the Junior Steelheads disposed of last season’s WSHL Champion Phoenix Polar Bears in the Conference finals to earn a place in the Thorne Cup Championship.
After Idaho took game one of the finals 3-1 on Friday evening at the Sierra Providence Event Center in El. Paso, Texas the pressure was on the home team Rhinos to win and force a game three. El Paso pushed the pace in the first period and took a quick 1-0 lead just 33 seconds into the game as Rhinos forward Mike Rivera beat Idaho goalie Brad Atkinson to give the Rhinos early hope. Idaho didn’t let the Rhinos keep that early momentum however as Boise native Justin Videen scored an unassisted goal just 55 seconds after the early Rhino goal. Just 2:05 later Vancouver, WA native Sam Leslie added one of his own to give Idaho a 2-1 lead.
El Paso managed to do what few have done to Idaho this season and outshoot the Steelheads 15-10 in the first period but after the early goal Atkinson shut the door and allowed his teammates to take control of the game.
Both teams battled evenly throughout most of the second period with Idaho managing to kill off two minor penalties and El Paso again out shooting the Steelheads by a slimmer 13-10 margin. The game appeared to be heading to the third period with Idaho holding onto the slim one goal lead, however with 1:22 remaining in the period Idaho forward Skyler McKnight beat El Paso goalie Trent Casper for the eventual game winner. Second year Steelheads forward Stephen Rock and defenseman Greg Chapman assisted on McKnight’s first goal of the playoffs.
With the two goal lead Steelheads Head Coach John Olver tightened the screws on the defense as El Paso managed just six shots on goal in the final period. Both teams battled evenly for nearly half the third period before Idaho delivered the knockout blow with a Tyler Smith tally at the 8:05 mark. Smith, a 19 year old from Santa Monica, CA picked a fine time to register his first playoff goal which was assisted by Leslie.
El Paso showed no quit as they kept pushing to try and shrink the 4-1 Idaho lead and did manage a late goal by Ben Henne with 27 seconds remaining but it was too little too late for the Rhinos to extend the season and the series.
In just its second season Idaho has become the champion of the Junior A Tier III WSHL and with the championship has qualified for the Junior A Tier III National Tournament to be played in Rochester, MN April 1-5.