Hockey: Optimistic Americans open the season Saturday

Hockey: Optimistic Americans open the season Saturday (GF Tribune)

 

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Maybe more unbelievable than the Great Falls Americans’ turnaround in recent years, the hockey season is a mere three days away.

“It’s a quick offseason, I guess,” Americans head coach Jeff Heimel said. “… I was joking on Saturday, when we were playing in the preseason (game in Helena), with Blake (Page), our assistant coach, I’m like, ‘I feel like we were just here for the playoff game.’ ”

They were.

The Americans are coming off a 2013-14 season in which they reached the league finals, eventually losing in a sweep to the Helena Bighorns. Great Falls, which was 36-9-3 in the regular season, starts the 2014-15 season on the road Saturday as it travels to Havre to take on the Glacier Nationals.

The trip to the finals last year was an eye-opening experience for Heimel’s group.

“I had a meeting with those guys at the beginning of the season, the guys that all returned,” Heimel said. “And we talked about last year. And we talked about what it felt like. You see Helena celebrating a championship last year and our guys sitting on the bench. It’s almost like, the kind of were like, ‘Oh, that’s what this was all about.’ … We were so talented last year, but I think it took some maturity … to understand.”

Said goalie Evan Hauser: “We learned that we could have pushed harder … We’re working twice as hard as we did last year. We are all excited for (this season).”

Heimel, who was named AWHL Coach of the Year last season, thinks he has 13 or 14 new players on his team this season and 11 or 12 returnees.

“Yeah, there’s definitely some new blood, new faces around here,” said Heimel, who is entering his third year as head coach with the Americans. “For the better, though. We really wanted to work hard to find good pieces and continue to grow our program, and I really like the guys that we have so far. It was a good offseason from a recruiting standpoint.”

Forwards Robert Kalata, Wade Wylie, Adam Apangalook are three players that Heimel expects to produce this season. The Americans lost several electric forwards from last year’s team, including the AWHL Player of the Year, Aaron McInnis, and a glue-guy and an underrated piece in forward Brady Christiaens.

Heimel says it will be more “offense by committee” this season.

“I think we lost a little bit of flashiness with guys (leaving),” Heimel said. “But that doesn’t mean that we are going to have any less offensive production. I just think we have a different team … Our fourth line this year would’ve been better than our third line last year … I think we have a more complete team.”

Along the blue line, Arseny Ivanov, Hunter Garris and Michael Kliment headline the newcomers on the back end. Kliment, a Czech defenseman, played for the Americans two years ago. Heimel wanted to add toughness to his defensive core during the offseason.

And he is happy with the additions, saying his defense is the strongest he’s ever seen it as a Tier III coach. Hauser, the returner in net, isn’t complaining.

“All of our (defensemen) are 6-1 or bigger,” Hauser said. “We’ve got a big blue line, and it’s cool to see. Once we get our systems down and stuff, I think defensively, we’ll be unstoppable.”

Heimel doesn’t expect a drop off between the pipes. Erik Powell has left, but the veteran Hauser returns, and the third-year head coach is excited about newcomer Lauren Massie, who Heimel said looked really strong in one of its preseason games this past weekend.

“They could be one and two in the division for goaltenders,” Heimel said of his two goalies.

Lucas Lomax, Zach Mese, Dylan Garton, Connor Barta, Erik Gatson, Lucas Stover, Austin Krantz, Johnathan Carpenter and Powell are veteran returnees. Cody Page, another key piece offensively, is on the injured reserve, Heimel said, and is expected back in 45-60 days.

“Definitely a good group, a good core,” Heimel said.

The Americans, along with the rest of the what-used-to-be American West Hockey League, joined a bigger Tier III junior hockey league this past spring: the North American 3 Hockey League or NA3HL. The competition, at least for the majority of the year, will remain the same, though, as the seven teams in Montana and Wyoming will now make up what is called the Frontier Division. The NA3HL is made up of 31 teams all over the country in five different divisions.

“The long-term goal is to win the division, obviously,” Heimel said.

This is the first season that the ice at the Great Falls IcePlex has been ready in time for preseason preparation. In past years, the team would only practice two nights a week for the first couple weeks of the season and would have to travel to Helena to find ice to skate on.

A fundraising event, a youth camp and a preseason game have helped with the costs and allowed them to step on the ice early this season, Heimel said. He says his team is in a better place at this point in the season compared to where it was at this time last season. The extra ice time has a lot to do with it.

“I think it’s been good,” Heimel said of training camp. “ … It’s gone very, very well. I think there’s been a learning curve. You’re starting to see guys settle in a little bit … It’s all about introducing a lot of content in a short period of time and getting guys acclimated.”

Attached Photo: Courtesy of Rion Sanders, Tribune Photographer

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