March 29, 2016
GREAT FALLS, MT — Jeff Heimel and Connor Barta believe the Great Falls Americans are playing their best hockey of the season.
It could not have come at a better time.
The Americans, fresh off of back-to-back Frontier championships, are in Romeoville, Ill, this week for the North American 3 Hockey League’s Silver Cup, a national tournament that features the top eight teams in the league.
“It’s good to peak at the right time,” said Heimel, the Great Falls head coach.
The tournament, to commence Wednesday at the Canlan Ice Arena, is comprised of the NA3HL’s six division champions and two wild cards.
Two pools separate the eight squads, and both pools will battle each other for the first three days before the top two teams in each pool meet in semifinal play Saturday. The winners will compete for the title Sunday.
“Right now, we are pretty much taking it a game at a time. We’re really looking forward to playing (Point) Mallard (Ala.) here (Wednesday),” Barta, the veteran defenseman, said of the team’s first game Wednesday night at 6:30. “Right now, a game at a time. But it’d be awesome to win this whole thing.”
Point Mallard, the South Division’s title holder, went 4-1 in the playoffs and 35-9-3 in the regular season. The Ducks boast two forwards, Justin Dunn and Josh Hamilton, who each have more than 30 goals on the season.
Barta, a plus-1 in four postseason games, thinks the Americans, 38-11-2 overall, are better equipped than the Great Falls team that made the trip to the Chicago area this time a year ago.
Great Falls has 12-13 skaters, according to Heimel, who experienced the Silver Cup last season, when it lost all three of its games and was sent home early.
“I think we are playing our best hockey,” said Barta, the Great Falls product. “We’ve really come together as a team. At the beginning of the season, we weren’t that close. Now, we’ve become a lot closer throughout the last couple months, which is really good, especially going into this tournament.”
Great Falls, in Pool A with North Iowa, Point Mallard and Yellowstone, continues action Thursday against the Bulls of North Iowa, a team that has held the Silver Cup in two out of the past three seasons and holds a 46-2-3 mark this year.
The Americans and Quake, which reached the field as one of the two wild cards, will meet for the 11th time this season Friday night at 6:30. This past Saturday, Great Falls edged Yellowstone 5-4, sweeping the Quake in best-of-three Frontier finals series.
“I think all eight teams here are good teams,” Heimel said. “I don’t think there’s such thing as a good draw. You have to come in, you have to win and you’re going to have to beat the best teams to do it.”
Josh Larson (three goals, three assists) and Tanner Congdon (1G, 5A) both tallied a team-high six points as Great Falls skated past Bozeman and Yellowstone en route to the Silver Cup. Larson and Tegan Harrington led the team in plus-minus at plus-5.
Net minder Jake Stephan was splendid between the pipes, stopping 94.6 percent of the shots he encountered and registering a 1.61 goals against average in four contests.
The team’s playmaking, Heimel said, has been “phenomenal.”
“All four lines of our forwards can really score,” Barta said, “and then our defensive core is probably one of best in the league.
“I think we are all ready to go for it.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans begin Silver Cup Wednesday (March 29, 2016)