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GF Tribune: Great Falls Americans begin playoffs Thursday night at IcePlex

GF Tribune: Great Falls Americans begin playoffs Thursday night at IcePlex

 

By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer (sschreck@greatfallstribune.com)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Losing isn’t always a bad thing.

For a team that’s on a roll, it can provide an opportunity to dissect its flaws that before were masked by its wins.

The Great Falls Americans were 28-5 as they headed to Helena for a game with the Bighorns on Jan. 17.

The Americans — who open the Frontier Division playoffs Thursday at 7 at the IcePlex in a best-of-3 series with the Billings Bulls — proceeded to lose their next five games and, in the process, their stranglehold atop the Frontier Division of the North American 3 Hockey League.

After the string of defeats, Americans head coach Jeff Heimel said they looked at “everything.” Team chemistry. They switched up line combinations. They even made some trades. The biggest thing, the head coach said, was that they were getting outworked.

“I think at the end of the day, we had been winning a ton of games and doing very, very well,” Heimel said. “ … It forced us to take a look in the mirror, you know? As far as, hey, what are we doing well? Why are we losing some games all of the sudden? … We addressed a lot of things. I think that’s why losing can be good.”

It was.

The Americans, 34-10-3 overall, won five of their next six, the only loss being in shootout for which they still earned a point. The No. 1 seed in the playoffs, Great Falls clinched home ice advantage with a win over the Glacier Nationals last Friday.

“It’s definitely an exciting time,” Heimel said, “and obviously this is what we have been waiting for.”

Last season, in what was then called the American West Hockey League, the Americans made it to the finals and were swept by Helena (The Bighorns, the No. 2 seed, play the No. 3 seed Gillette Wild in the first round; the winner plays either Great Falls or Billings in the finals).

In order to compete for a championship that slipped by the wayside a season ago, the Americans will have to rely on their star players, which means the first line of Cody Page, Lucas Lomax and Josh Larson.

Lomax, a Phoenix, Ariz., native, leads the team with 49 points. The veteran lefty has a team-high 30 goals to go along with 19 assists.

Page, of Capistrano Beach, Calif., has missed time due to injury this season but has picked it up of late, piling up 14 points in his last nine times out.

And Larson, a new acquisition who arrives from Glacier, already has eight points in seven games with the Americans, the “missing link” to a line that is now “pretty threatening,” the head coach said.

The veterans along the blue line — Lucas Stover, Reed Link and Connor Barta — have played well of late and have been very strong. Stover had been moved up to forward earlier in the year but has now taken a spot as a defenseman.

“They are three guys in our top four as far as pairings,” Heimel said.

The head coach of three years is happy to have home ice for the playoffs. It allows for Heimel to get his desired matchups. With home ice, on face-offs, the Americans have the last line change, an opportunity to see who No. 4 seed Billings (25-16-6) puts on the ice first and have a leg up in a chess match of sorts.

That, coupled with the rowdy fans at the IcePlex, is a good combination.

“We have a very, very supportive crowd and fan base, which we love,” Heimel said. “We’ve done well at home the last couple years. I’m excited. If there’s three games, to potentially have a third game at home as opposed to on the road, that’s huge.

“This is what we worked for, the entire season, to have an opportunity to compete for a championship.”

Attached Photo: Courtesy of Larry Beckner, Tribune Photographer