By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
October 15, 2016
An eerie silence engulfed the Great Falls IcePlex on Saturday night.
Except for the visitors’ sticks banging against the boards in celebration and their bench yelling and screaming after puck after puck found the back of the net, the ice rink, filled with 842 faithful fans, was quiet, shocked.
They had never seen, at least in the past two seasons, their hockey team get beaten this badly, this soundly, with so few answers.
“We got every bit what we deserved,” said head coach Jeff Heimel said after Great Falls’ 7-3 loss to the Missoula Junior Bruins. “I felt like the stretches where we got goals scored against us, we weren’t working, we weren’t winning races, we were soft on the puck. They capitalized on every opportunity that we gave them.”
A night after scoring three unanswered in the third period to beat the Bruins 3-2, the Americans almost mounted an incredible rally on Saturday. But the Bruins held on, notching an impressive road win to improve to 3-4-0-1 overall. Great Falls dropped to 6-2-1-1.
The Americans outshot Missoula 45-39. Great Falls goalie Nick Nast was pulled after letting in the fifth, giving way to Kyler Ayers.
After Misha Akatnov had captured his hat trick and another goal followed nine seconds after that, the Bruins were up 5-0 less than a minute into the third period.
And they were looking like the Great Falls Americans the past two years: dominant, potent on offense, with a net minder to back them up who stopped virtually everything he saw.
“I’ve known Marcus Baxter a long time,” Heimel said of Missoula’s head coach. “He’s a great coach. He puts his team in a position to win every night. It’s actually been really fun coaching against him.”
For a young team like the Americans, a roster that had a bunch of turnover from last season, it’s a learning experience, the head coach said.
“I think it is a good lesson for us, and I expect to grow out of this situation,” Hemiel said. “But it’s just work, really. We got outworked for however many minutes of the hockey game, and they capitalized on every chance they had.”
A handful of years ago the Americans, at the time the doormat of the league, were the ones losing in embarrassing fashion. But over time, their culture changed and so did the outcome of their hockey games.
It’s certainly not as dire as those days, with the Americans currently in second place in the division with 14 points. But for a young and unproven squad, their culture is still being built.
“They are seeing some of these situations for the first time,” Heimel said, “and I think they are learning that you can’t take nights off. That’s where the veteran groups we’ve had in the past that have kind of been through that for a couple years. They learned that pretty quickly.”
After goals from Brendan Jester and Malachi Bushey, just 41 seconds apart, the Americans trailed 5-2. Midway through the third, Jester gathered a loose puck and, with a throng of traffic in front of the net, fired one past Missoula net minder Julius Huset to get within 5-3. Once hushed in disbelief, the arena, and the Americans, had some life. But it was short-lived.
“You salvage an awful night,” Hemiel said of the three quick goals, “with a little bit of positive. You certainly got to see on the bench the guys that weren’t willing to accept that.”
Great Falls, the two-time defending Frontier Division champs, had plenty of chances in the first period, controlling possession of the puck for a majority of the opening 20 minutes. But Huset, who entered the game with a 1.56 goals against average and a save percentage of .976, stopped all 12 shots directed his way.
Twice the Americans stared at a wide open net in the slot, only to come away empty as Missoula, the newest member to the eight-team division, used active sticks to keep the contest scoreless.
Though mostly untested, Nast, another newcomer to the roster that features an entire new set of net minders, fended off nine first-period shots. The next one, though, found the back of the net.
Early in the second stanza, a loose puck found the tape of Payton McSharry, and the Bruins were off on a two-on-one from the blue line in. McSharry found a streaking Akatnov, who beat Nast low to the glove side.
Two perfectly placed shots, one by Akatnov that went top shelf and another by McSharry that rang off the post and in, made it 3-0 in favor of Missoula midway through the second period. Forty-one seconds separated the two goals.
Despite sending three players to the penalty box in the middle period, the Bruins led 3-0 after two as Huset continued his stellar play, stopping 27 shots. Huset, statistically one of the top goalies in the North American Hockey League, had appeared in five games prior to Saturday, three of them coming in relief action.
“Kudos to the goalie, I thought he played very, very well,” Heimel said. “But we have to do a better job of obstructing vision and getting into lanes. We had a lot of pucks come through, but again, point shots with a goalie seeing a shot head on, it’s an easy save to make sometimes, even though I still think he played very well.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans suffer rare loss at Ice Plex (October 15, 2016)