By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
March 14, 2017
Since the hockey season began back in September, the Great Falls Americans and Yellowstone Quake have been the heavyweights, counting down the days to a potential final-round bout in the Frontier Division playoffs.
But both squads first need to get there.
That starts this week as the Americans of head coach Jeff Heimel face off against the Gillette Wild in the second round of the postseason, a best-of-three series set to commence Wednesday night in Wyoming.
“I think they are a good hockey team,” Heimel said. “They work hard, they are well-coached. They’ve been successful this year as well and beat a lot of good teams in our division. I think it’s going to be a good series.”
The second game of the series is set for Friday night at the Great Falls IcePlex, to begin at 7:30 p.m. An if-necessary Game 3 would be on Saturday at noon, also at the IcePlex.
Gillette was 35-11-1-0 in the regular season. The Wild upended the Helena Bighorns 2-1 in a first-round clash.
Thoughts of a championship tilt with Yellowstone, which is taking on Bozeman in the semifinals, need to be put on hold, the head coach said.
“We just can’t look ahead,” Heimel said. “I think that’s the simple answer there is to not look ahead. What’s right in front of us is that we have a three-game series, and our goal is to obviously win that series and we’ll take it step by step. Especially in the postseason, you don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse.”
The Americans, the two-time defending Frontier champions, received a bye in the opening round because of their top-two finish during the regular season. Great Falls finished at 38-4-2-3 and has one loss in regulation play since Oct. 21.
“That is the best regular-season stretch that I think we’ve gone through as far as win-loss, in a streak, since I’ve been here,” Heimel said.
The defeat, an 8-2 setback to the Quake in the second-to-last game of the regular season, might have served as a jolt to a team that was cruising perhaps too easily.
“We needed to get beat,” Heimel said. “We were starting to play a little looser than we wanted to, and it was good to clean some things up from that. I think that was a positive experience for us prior to the playoffs.”
After the lopsided loss, Heimel and Co. rebounded the following day with a 6-3 triumph over the Quake. During the 47 games prior to this week’s postseason, five Great Falls players have accumulated 52 points or more.
Tanner Congdon (41 goals, 41 assists) leads the squad, while Brendan Jester (34G, 38A), Danny O’Donnell (20G, 46A), Payton McSharry (28G, 30A) and Tegan Harrington (25G, 27A) have all found incredible success in the other team’s zone.
It’s one of more balanced teams on offense that Heimel has had in his tenure.
“We’ve got several players over that point-a-game mark, and it’s definitely helping with our approach,” he said. “I’m sure teams are going to try to shut down our premier players, Congdon and those guys. As a result of that, you might need some secondary offense, and I think we’ve got that and that can help.”
McSharry has totaled 58 points in only 41 games. The Anchorage, Alaska native joined after coming over from the Missoula Junior Bruins.
Heimel said McSharry, on the top line with Jester and Congdon, has “been a huge addition” to the team.
“He’s been good and hot lately, too,” the head coach said. “I think he has several goals in his last several games. He’s a player we acquired in a trade midseason in an effort to boost up our offense, and he’s done that. He’s a very, very offensively talented player. We’ve certainly used him in that type of role.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans to face Wild in Frontier playoffs (March 14, 2017)