By Steve Schreck, Great Falls Tribune Sports Writer
March 10, 2014
It’s not about looking good or making the flashy play.
This time of the year, as the American West Hockey League playoffs get underway tonight, it’s about doing the little things – grinding it out in the corners, not turning the puck over at your own blue-line, crossing the red-line and dumping the puck into your opponent’s zone.
Trying to toe-drag around a defender at the blue-line, or trying a cute pass when you have a wide-open shot can result in the puck in the back of your net and a spot on the bench.
The Great Falls Americans, which finished the season at 36-9-3 and the No. 2 seed in the league, will begin the AWHL playoffs on the road tonight at 7 against the Gillette Wild, which finished the season as the No. 3 seed in the league with a 28-17-3 record.
“I think first and foremost, keep it simple,” said Americans head coach Jeff Heimel. “It’s playoff hockey. You don’t want to try to get too cute. Just making simple, little plays as far as chipping pucks off the wall, getting pucks deep. You just don’t want to leave anything to chance, you don’t want to be too cute on the blue-line … We want to execute all the little things really well.”
The Americans will play the first two games of the best-of-five game series in Gillette, Wyo., and return to the Great Falls IcePlex on Friday night for Game 3. If necessary, the final two games will be played on Saturday and Sunday at the IcePlex.
“Anytime you have to go on the road first, it’s a challenge,” said Heimel. “I think Gillette’s a good hockey team. I think we have had a lot of good, close hockey games against them. I think how we did against them in the regular season – going 7-1 – isn’t necessarily reflective on a couple games that could have gone either way, in my opinion.”
Gillette finished its last 15 games of the season with an 11-4 record. The Americans, in their seven wins and one loss against Gillette, outscored the Wild 29-12.
“I think that (Gillette) is going to be ready,” said Heimel. “They have to want to do well at home, and put a little pressure on us to go back home in Great Falls on our heels a little bit. I think if we can come in and split (the two games) or better, then I think we are in good shape.”
Heimel has talked to his team about staying out of the penalty box and not turning the puck over, two things that are magnified in playoff hockey.
“As far as personnel goes, I think at the end of the day, I think your best players just have to be your best players,” said Heimel. “I think everybody has an understanding of what they need to do.”
Aaron McInnis is one of those “best” players that the head coach is referring to, a forward who has accumulated 72 points – 29 goals and 43 assists – in only 42 games this season. McInnis is also an impressive team-best +50 on the year. Cody Page and Lucas Lomax are also expected to produce, two players that have scored 27 and 22 goals on the season, respectively.
Heimel said that he doesn’t want this team to be satisfied with all the accolades it received during the regular season, and because of it, his team is taking these playoffs like a whole new season. It’s also going to be a whole new experience for a team that is appearing in the playoffs for the first time, too.
Its captain, Donovan Mattfeldt, is one of the few players that have AWHL playoff experience on the roster.
“It’ll be interesting to see how we come out of the gates,” said Heimel. “It is playoff hockey … It’s a mentality. It’s Boston (in the NHL playoffs) last year, I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he blocks a shot and breaks his leg, and stays on the ice and blocks another one and then gets off the ice. It’s just doing whatever it takes and laying it on the line.”
Heimel is confident with his team.
“I think they’ll do well,” he said. “It’s a good group. There’s good leadership … I think what you want to avoid is guys being a little too tight and obviously finding the middle ground, and I think guys are relaxed and having fun but serious at the same time. I like that energy, that’s what you want. There’s a ton of confidence in the room right now. I think we’re ready. I think we’re ready to go. And we are excited.”
Erik Powell will start between the pipes for the Americans, said Heimel. Powell is 19-6 on the season, with a 2.57 goals against average, a .932 save percentage and three shutouts. His experience as a goalie, and his history of solid goaltending against Gillette, were some of the reasons he will get the nod, said Heimel.
“I think at this point he’s earned the starting job,” said Heimel.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: AWHL Hockey: Americans skate into postseason (March 10, 2014)