NORTH AMERICAN HOCKEY LEAGUE: Brahmas sweep Jackalopes out of playoffs

Odessa Jackalopes coach Greg Gatto was sitting in his office, leaning back in his chair trying to grasp the sudden end of the season, when Lone Star Brahmas coach Dan Wildfong walked in the room.

The two long-time rivals, on the ice and behind the bench, talked about the series just won by Lone Star, praising players on both teams and commiserating about others that may not have given their best effort during the trio of postseason games.

Then Gatto mentioned Brahmas’ goaltender Mitchell Gibson and Wildfong smiled and said, “Yeah, he might get drafted,” as in the National Hockey League draft in June.

That’s the type of talent teams need to be successful in the North American Hockey League, that diamond-in-the-rough player who is willing to hone his skills and shine at this level in order to be noticed and take it to the next level, whether it’s the NHL or college hockey.

The Jackalopes are very familiar with that experience as they watch former goaltender Connor Hellebuyck star between the pipes on a nightly basis for the Winnipeg Jets, helping them into the second round of the NHL playoffs.

Odessa had a few players capable of making a difference in this series, but their inability to get things going offensively, combined with the Brahmas’ Gibson allowing just three goals in three games (one each contest) had the Jackalopes packing their bags and heading home Saturday.

Lone Star clinched the postseason sweep of the Jackalopes with the 4-1 win.

“The difference in the series wasn’t their top guys, because we kept them off the board,” Gatto said. “It was the guys that were willing to do the dirty work in front of the net and in the corners, blocking shots, forechecking.

“We didn’t have that and Lone Star put a lot of pressure on us and got some bounces and capitalized.”

The first bounce came 7:33 into the first period of Friday’s Game 3, when Jackalopes goaltender Brett Epp stopped a shot with his blocker and the puck popped up in of the net. It landed among several players, of both teams, and Lone Star’s Frankie Trazzera was able to complete the play snapping it into the net the 1-0 lead.

The second fortuitous happening came in the waning seconds of the first period when Lone Star’s Justin Addamo intercepted a pass at the Brahmas’ blue line and fed a pass up the ice to teammate Connor Stuart, who was just leaving the penalty box.

The pass sent Stuart, a former Jackalope, in all alone on Epp and Stuart didn’t miss, lifting the puck inside the right post for the eventual game-and-series-clinching goal just five seconds before the first intermission.

“Didn’t get the puck out of trouble on the first one and made a bad pass on the second one,” Gatto said.

Kyle Hallbauer added a second-period goal to make it 3-0 for Lone Star before Blake Bride snapped Gibson’s shutout bid with 3:54 remaining to play in the game.

Lone Star added an empty net goal with 1:29 to play to seal the victory.

The final game of the season sees junior clubs saying goodbye to their 20-year-old players, which the Jackalopes have several.

It also is a chance for the coaches to talk to the players who are expected to be back the following year and Gatto is looking at 11 or 12 possibly making their way back to the Permian Basin for the 2018-19 campaign.

“We have a great group of kids in the room all year,” Gatto said. “It’s always tough when you have to say goodbye to kids who have worked as hard as you’ve asked.

“But it’s also a time when you start thinking about what’s going to happen next year and the holes you are going to need to fill.”