By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
March 24, 2016
GREAT FALLS, MT — The Great Falls Americans played perhaps their best hockey game of the season Thursday night.
So the Americans are one win away from another championship.
Dominant on offense and defense, Great Falls cruised past the visiting Yellowstone Quake 4-1 in Game 1 of the Frontier Division finals before a crowd of about 1,000 at the Great Falls IcePlex.
“I think it was one of our better complete games,” Great Falls head coach Jeff Heimel said. “I actually think we have a lot that we can improve upon. But we had a game plan and that was to bottle them up, and I felt like we did that extremely well. I think the score showed it, and I think the amount of scoring opportunities they had showed it as well.”
Tegan Harrington, who didn’t have a point in the opening round against Bozeman, notched two goals and an assist as the Americans, the Frontier Division’s two seed, improved their record to 37-11-2. Yellowstone, the No. 1 seed, dropped to 37-10-4.
“It felt great,” Harrington said. “I was just the lucky guy getting the bounces. The whole team was working them down, and they were going to go in one way or the other. It was really just a team effort.”
The Americans are now 4-5 against the Quake this season. In the two final regular season games of the season, Yellowstone threw in nine goals against the Great Falls goaltenders.
That wasn’t the case Thursday night.
The Quake barely found breathing room for a reasonable scoring chance and rarely threatened to get one past Great Falls goalie Jake Stephan, who continued his stellar play between the pipes, except for a shot early in the third period that rang off the crossbar.
“I thought it was great,” Heimel said of Stephan’s effort. “I thought we played hard for him, too. I think the guys worked hard. I think he was simple, though. He didn’t see a ton of high-quality scoring chances, but his angles were good, his rebounds were good.”
Stephan’s shutout was spoiled with a minute left in the game. He stopped 24 shots. Great Falls registered 43 shots on net.
Heimel said his team’s defensive performance was due to a number of factors: outnumbering the opponent at the red line, being sound in the neutral zone, working hard on the back check and controlling puck possession.
Harrington noticed his team’s uptick defensively compared to the last two games of the regular season.
“We knew that they have a fast offense,” Harrington said. “And we knew that once we shut them down, our offense will still be powerful. That was our game plan.”
Harrington, the southpaw forward, opened the scoring with 11:12 remaining in the first period.
In the Quake zone, Josh Larson corralled the puck along the boards and located a streaking Harrington in the middle of the ice. Larson’s pass found Harrington in the slot, and he one-timed it blocker side past Yellowstone net minder Lance Knudson.
“We wanted to jump on them from the get-go,” Harrington said, “and let them know that we’re the best team in this division.”
Larson, who’s in his final year of eligibility with the Americans, has now registered four points – two goals and two assists – in his team’s three playoff games.
Heimel said the quick start was essential.
“Anytime you can score first and grab the momentum early on,” Heimel said, “it doesn’t guarantee a win, but it definitely helps.”
Harrington’s second goal of the game, a deflection in front of the net off a shot from the blue line from defenseman Miles Giorgione, extended the Great Falls advantage to 2-0 with a minute left in the first stanza.
With five seconds left in the period, Wade Wylie, near the top of the circle, perfectly placed a shot underneath the right arm of Knudson for a power-play tally, and the Americans skated into intermission with a 3-0 cushion. Great Falls doubled up Yellowstone in shots (18-9) in the first 20 minutes of play.
“To score with that amount of time left was a big deal,” Heimel said. “To do so, it obviously helped add to our momentum. But even the message in the second period was we have to go out and play as good of hockey as we can regardless of the score and treat it like a new period, as far as it being 0-0, and I thought we did that well and won that period.”
Looking for a spark, Yellowstone head coach Ryan Theros pulled Knudson in favor of backup Garret Matz to start the second period.
Matz allowed a goal on the first shot he faced.
Tyler Garcia set up Kyle Johnson in front of the net, and Johnson found the back of the net 1:19 into the frame. 4-0. Harrington earned the other assist. Great Falls outshot Yellowstone 33-19 through two periods.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is scheduled for Saturday in Cody, Wyo. If Yellowstone wins, a third game will be played on Sunday at the Quake’s home rink.
“We’re focused on winning a league championship and a division championship,” Heimel said. “There’s a lot of good hockey left to be played, on both sides. And I think they’ll come back ready to go, and we have to be ready for them.”
Said Harrington: “A division title is a division title, and we haven’t won until we win our next game.”
Americans 4, Quake 1
Yellowstone 0 0 1 — 1
Great Falls 3 1 0 – 4
First period – 1. Great Falls, Tegan Harrington (Josh Larson, Tanner Congdon) 8:48. 2. Great Falls, Tegan Harrington (Miles Giorgione, Kyle Johnson) 18:40. 3. Great Falls, Wade Wylie (unassisted) 19:55 (pp).
Second period – 4. Great Falls – Kyle Johnson (Tyler Garcia, Tegan Harrington) 1:19.
Third period – 5. Yellowstone, Tristan Henrichs (Mason Stewart, Nick Greene) 19:00.
Shots on goal – Yellowstone 9-10-6—25. Great Falls 18-15-10—43.
Power play opportunites – Yellowstone 0-6. Great Falls 1-2.
Goalies (shots/saves) – Yellowstone, Lance Knudson (L, 18/15); Garret Matz (0:00 second; 25/24). Great Falls, Jake Stephan (W, 25/24).
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans take Game 1 (March 24, 2016)