By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
March 22, 2017
For the second straight season, all that stands between the Great Falls Americans and a third straight appearance in the national tournament is the Yellowstone Quake.
“We’ve played well against them this year,” Great Falls head coach Jeff Heimel said. “They’re a good hockey team, especially in the net. I think they struggled last season in the postseason goaltending wise, and I think they have a guy (Nick Ottenbacher) who can definitely play well and stop the puck. I think it’s going to be a really, really good series.”
On Thursday night at 7, Great Falls travels to Cody, Wyo., for Game 1 of the Frontier Division finals. The two teams are in the Electric City for Game 2 on Friday at 7:30, and a potential rubber match in the best-of-three series is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, back in Wyoming.
Great Falls and Yellowstone were the top two teams all year. The Quake finished the 47 games leading up to the playoffs with a 40-4-0-3 record and 83 points. Great Falls, meanwhile, concluded at 38-4-2-3 and 81. Both teams, after receiving a bye in the first round, swept their second-round playoff series last week.
Ottenbacher won 26 games in the regular season and boasted a goals against average of 2.16 and a save percentage of .931. Great Falls net minder Nick Nast won 20 games but ranked above Ottenbacher in goals against (2.13) and save percentage (.934).
“You need a goalie in the playoffs, and you have two of the best goalies in the league playing against each other,” Heimel said. “It will be exciting. I expect to see some good goaltending.”
Great Falls and Yellowstone met six times during the regular season, with each winning three games. It’s a rematch of last year’s finals, which Great Falls won 2-0.
Half of the games this season between the two teams have been decided by one goal, all three of which needed an overtime or a shootout to do so.
An unfortunate bounce, a bad decision could serve as the tipping point in what should be a hotly contested series.
“Really, it’s a matter of continuing to play well and if anything in the playoffs you have to be able to play your best hockey at all times and it’s really a game of mistakes,” Heimel said. “You have to manage your mistakes at this level. The team that makes the fewest mistakes is probably going to win.”
In the series-clinching victory over Gillette last week, Great Falls won 3-1 despite committing 20 minutes of penalties, including two instances that allowed Gillette 5-on-3 advantages.
Yellowstone, the Frontier’s regular-season champions, was ranked fourth out of 48 teams during the regular season in terms of their effectiveness on the power play, converting on more than 31 percent (50-159) of their chances.
“We haven’t necessarily done well against their power play,” Heimel said. “We have to stay out of the box. We have to be more disciplined. We haven’t been.”
Great Falls, seeking its third consecutive division title, swept the Wild last week in large part because of Tanner Congdon, who tallied a hat trick in each of the team’s two victories.
The team’s top line – Congdon, Brendan Jester and Payton McSharry – accounted for much of the production in that series.
“We’ve had a lot of good players come through here,” Heimel said. “And they’re just as effective as any of them. It’s kind of cool to see what they are doing right now. But they’ve got another series to prepare for, and they’ve got to come out and play again.”
Great Falls is looking to advance to the national tournament, known as the Silver Cup, for the third season in a row. The event features the playoff winners from each of the North American 3 Hockey League’s eight divisions and is slated to commence March 29 in Illinois.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans to face Yellowstone in Frontier finals (March 22, 2017)