GF Tribune: Americans play host to ‘bitter’ rival Friday night

By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer

December 3, 2015

The Great Falls Americans are one of the better defensive teams in the North American 3 Hockey League.

Two of their net minders – Lauren Massie and Jake Stephan – are in the top seven in the league in goals against average and the defensemen along the blue line are both strong and skilled.

But head coach Jeff Heimel, as his team prepares for a matchup with rival Helena at 7:30 Friday at the IcePlex, thinks his team as a whole can be better in their own end.

“I think anytime that you can put up those type of statistics,” Heimel said, “you’re happy as a coach. But I do think us as a group, and goaltenders being a part of this but our team in general, we need to come up with timely defensive moments. And that starts with maybe a blocked shot or a save or picking up a stick and different things.”

Great Falls, the defending Frontier Division champions, is 16-6 on the season. Its 92 goals scored are atop the seven-team conference and the 44 given up are the lowest. Five points ahead of second-place Yellowstone, the Americans are primed for another postseason run.

In last year’s postseason Great Falls and the Helena Bighorns (12-7; fourth in the Frontier) met in the championship series. After struggling with the Bighorns in recent seasons, Great Falls swept the best-of-three series with victories of 5-2 and 6-2.

While the competitive head-to-head battles are still somewhat in their infancy stages, players and coaches get up for games like Friday night, Heimel said. And so should fans.

“Just that you’re looking at a Divisional championship matchup from last season and a bitter, bitter rivalry with a lot of emotion and that’s going to reflect in the hockey game,” he said on the intrigue of Friday’s game and why spectators should attend. “Somehow, someway, no matter how good or bad each team is, it’s always just one of the better hockey games that we play all year, these games against Helena. So we’re excited. I’m sure it’s going to be a great time.”

Great Falls, led in points (27) by forward Brendan Jester, is 3-2 in its last five games. It was suggested to Heimel that this season has been one of ups and downs. He agreed, though the standard has been set extremely high in recent years.

“I suppose it’s a compliment when you call winning 16 out of your first 22 up and down,” he laughed. “But yeah, truthfully, we’ve gone through spurts of good and bad. We’ve been in some close hockey games and we’ve had good weekends and we’ve had bad weekends. There’s been a lot of learning along the way.”

An area of the game to watch out for Friday night is special teams. Great Falls has only converted on 14 of its 106 chances (13 percent) on the power play, while Helena leads the NA3HL in the penalty kill, allowing just six goals on the 107 times (94 percent) during times it has skated on the disadvantage. In a physical game, wasted opportunities for Great Falls such as these could loom large.

“That’s where we’ve continued to try to put a strong emphasis on special teams,” Heimel said. “It’s tough. The numbers haven’t necessarily shown where I think we are at, but I’ve definitely seen some improvement in special teams throughout the course of the last two months.”

Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans play host to ‘bitter’ rival Friday night (December 3, 2015)