"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!

Austin’s Fourth Straight Captures Southern Division Crown
Jason Cohen ITC Staff Writer

El Paso, TX - So long, Mudbugs. Take a hike, Buzzards. For the first time in the trophy's six-year life, there will be a new President's Cup champion.

The Austin Ice Bats beat El Paso Monday, 4-3, winning the best-of-seven Southern Conference Finals, 4-2. Brent Hughes' club is the first team in CHL history to come back from a 2-0 deficit. They'll now face Memphis in the final round.

"We really could have put our tails between our legs [after trailing in the series]," Hughes said. "But we've got pride on our team. We worked hard all season long to get this far. Our guys weren't letting up."

"They were a little bit better than us," Buzzards defenseman Jason Tessier said. "Our goal was to win at least one out of three [in Austin]. We didn't get lucky there"

On Monday, it was almost too easy, as Austin lit the first three lamps. They may have been the quietest goals in hockey history:

Defenseman Greg Willers, carrying a defender with him all the way up the slot, 3:37 of the first.

Ian Larocque, hitting the top shelf with authority when a puck bounced off a skate to his stick at the right circle, 6:27 of the first.

Mike Gaffney, a point shot at 8:21 of the first.

The Buzzards were a carcass to be picked at. If the Bats had made it out of the first period leading 3-0, the game might have been over. If referee Guy Pellerin hadn't waved off a Jeff Greenlaw goal for being kicked, the game would have been over. Later, when news broke that El Paso head coach Trent Eigner had been arrested earlier Monday for possession of marijuana, you had to wonder if the Buzzards were distracted.

But no. At 16:45 of the first period, John Hanson's pass off a Dory Tisdale interception freed Van Burgess, squirting between two d-men at the neutral zone. Burgess shot before McMullen could even get ready for a deke, and it was 3-1.

County Coliseum was quiet no more. The crowd may as well have chanted, "Remember the Jackalopes!" After all, the last time El Paso faced playoff elimination, they erased a three-goal lead to shock the Jacks. The last time El Paso needed two straight wins to take a series. well, you didn't see Odessa in this round, did ya?

At 4:03 of the second, Hanson took a purposeful slap shot far to McMullen's right. The puck caromed off the boards to Derrel Upton, who put it in the net. 3-2.

Bats coach Brent Hughes was not happy about the four-on-three power play that allowed the Buzzards to tie the game late in the second period, but Larocque's goal had come during a lengthy advantage that included 82 seconds of five-on-three, so these things happen. The only shame of it was how good McMullen was during the kill, stopping Tessier twice, then a third time when he couldn't cover the puck and it went back to the point. The Austin goalie then stacked his pads perfectly to shut down Aaron Phillips, wide open at the back door. But the puck went to Burgess at what used to be the front door, and the Buzzards captain put it in the empty net. 3-3 at 16:50 of the second.

The crowd got their money's worth from there. There was so much back and forth action that Jeremy Vanin, in the box for a 10-minute misconduct, spent another six minutes of the second period waiting for a stoppage. McMullen and Jeff Levy both were on their game. Pellerin's whistle disappeared. Dan Price bulled all over the offensive zone. Justin Van Parys left CHL Most Outstanding Defenseman Daniel Tetrault half-dazed from a hit.

It was time for the unlikely hero.

So who would you prefer? The part-time IHL player and CHL all-star, a brilliant sniper who's done everything but snipe? Bobby Brown kills penalties, forechecks like a mutha and doesn't shirk on defense, but his scoring is down this season, even more so in the playoffs.

Or how 'bout the rookie defenseman who already has more goals this season than four years in junior combined? Brent Hughes is still wondering how Dominic Periard was the second man in on an offensive rush

But so he was, led by Brown after a neutral zone turnover. Brown put a move on the guy in front of him, a forward, and the duo had Levy to themselves.

"After my luck shooting the puck this series I figured, may as well try a dish," Brown said.

"He gave me a perfect pass," Periard offered. "I had an empty net."

Periard's tap-in made it 4-3 at 11:05 of the third.

"We played a pretty poor second period," Hughes said. "Give credit to the El Paso Buzzards. They don't stop. They had us going for a while, but we regrouped."

After a half-hour or so to absorb the shock, the Buzzards were in good spirits in the locker room, bonding one last time.

"It was just a good group," Tessier said. "We're a band of brothers. With the best teams, it's not only the skills, it's heart, and how hard the players work together."

"Your initial reaction is to be very upset," Kelly Riou, who filled El Paso' s assistant coach role in the series due to injury, said. "But you gotta pick your head up and realize there's only four teams playing at this time, and we were one of them. We went on quite a run at the end of the season, we battled back against Odessa and we made it to Game 6 [of the semifinals].

You can't ask for a much better effort than that."

Unless you're in Austin's room. "We know we've got a championship team in here, and we're playing like it right now," McMullen said. "It took a lot of heart to come back. Four more wins and we'll start celebrating."

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