"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Maybe the Odessa Jackalopes Shouldn't Feel So Bad
Jason Cohen ITC Staff Writer

El Paso, TX - After taking in their upset of the top-seeded Jacks, no one around the Central Hockey League expected the El Paso Buzzards to roll over in the Southern Conference finals.

No one expected them to put three goals past the Ice Bats inside of five minutes, either.

The Buzzards took out Austin 6-1 in Game 1, doing the most damage early, with Van Burgess tallying 80 seconds in and Derrell Upton scoring twice in 26. The 3-0 cushion was enough of a surprise that the County Coliseum press box received a call from someone wanting to confirm the score was right.

"We didn't take them lightly, but we weren't ready to play," Ice Bats coach Brent Hughes said. "They were the better team tonight, and they showed it."

El Paso was simply faster, smarter, harder, especially to start the game. Burgess' goal was freakish, a bad-angle slice that appeared to zip across the crease behind McMullen, only to be knocked in by the goaltender himself. At the other end, Jeff Levy made close-up stops on both Gerald Tallaire and Kelly Smart, setting the stage for Upton's double play. Troy Linna got a step on the Austin defense for a shot from the left circle; the rebound popped into the slot and Upton got it as a sea of solid jerseys came crashing to the ice. That came at 4:17 of the first period. The second goal was on a similarly scrambly follow-up at 4:43.

"Their first three goals weren't pretty, they just went in the net off bad breaks, but when you work, you get breaks," Hughes said.

"We got off to a bad start," Bats defenseman Daniel Tetrault said. "We didn' t respect our opponent. Maybe it's a wake up call for our team. Maybe it's good to lose the first one. Now we know it's not going to be easy – but nothing in the playoffs is. We took that for granted tonight. Give them credit, they're a hard working team and we've got to respect them. We've got to match their work ethic."

The Bats were 0-for-2 on the power-play in the first period, when it counted, and 0-for-2 in the second as well, though by then John Hanson had made it 4-0 with the first of his two goals. Mike Rees also scored for El Paso, while Tab Lardner ruined Levy's shutout with a third-period shorty. Austin settled down and found its game the last two periods, but Levy stayed strong, and his teammates never slackened. They seemed to get a stick on more than 50% of Austin's attempted shots and passes, all night long.

"The way they responded after we had a 3-0 lead, continuing to be physical, that was important for us tonight," El Paso coach Trent Eigner said "With the way the series was set up, with the first two at home, we thought getting a quick start was important. I'm sure we'll see a much better Austin team in Game 2."

"We kept fighting back and fighting back but we couldn't grab one," Hughes said. "Levy played great for them. We need to find a way to get more traffic, get more shots and get our power play clicking. A split is still a great situation with the next three at home, so tomorrow's a big hockey game."

Talk among El Paso's fans hearkened back to the team's two championship seasons, and Eigner didn't shy away from the comparison. "Having played on those teams I think some of the things I see are similar," he said. "The level of commitment, and we have a character group of guys. They know the meaning of 'team' and they work hard for each other. That's an important thing in the playoffs."

NOTE: El Paso beat Austin in six games in 1997, the first-ever Western Professional Hockey League season. The Buzzard went on to win the first two President's Cups. With Bossier-Shreveport remaining in the North, there's still a 50% chance that no new team will take the Cup (never mind that all those Miron and Levins Cup winners from the previous edition of the CHL complicate the issue).

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