By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
December 10, 2015
It’s hard to surprise if you are on the Great Falls Americans hockey team.
The standard has been set, Frontier Division championships and 30-plus win seasons, which causes some excellent hockey to turn ordinary.
Twenty-three games into the 2015-16 schedule, and the Americans are 17-6. Last weekend, Great Falls lit the lamp thrice in a 1:13 span, cruising to a 5-1 victory against the Helena Bighorns.
“We’ve been up and down lately, and I think Helena is a good hockey team and we played well,” Great Falls head coach Jeff Heimel said. “I felt like that was big for us. We want to go out in a good note before break, so when we come back, we can really use some of that momentum to push into the playoffs.”
The Americans haven’t played since but are back on the ice Friday night to take on the doormat of the Frontier Division, the Glacier Nationals, 2-18-2 on the season, at 7:30 at the Great Falls IcePlex.
Heimel doesn’t expect a letdown against the league’s worst team.
“You have to treat every opponent with respect and obviously prepare well,” he said. “But I think we have the benefit of it being our only game this week. With that in mind, I think everyone wants to come out and play a good hockey game and lay it all out there.”
The Americans travel to Minnesota next week for the North American 3 Hockey League Showcase, a three-day tournament where teams from around the league gather to impress scouts and see different competition.
While countless players have had their hand in another strong start, Heimel points to a trio of skaters who have made significant jumps from last season.
“As far as the biggest difference in point production from the year before,” he said. “I think Adam Apangalook, Brendan Jester and Austin Krantz (have surprised). They’re guys that have been in different roles in the past and have stepped up to the plate.”
Apangalook, a smooth-skating forward from Wasilla, Alaska, already has more points (18) than last season (13) in 10 fewer games. His eight goals are tied for fourth on the team.
“He’s always had good skill and good ability,” Heimel said. “He competes so hard. He’s always moving his feet. He gets a lot of points from his work ethic, which I think is awesome. This year he is kind of settling in a little bit. He’s got confidence and I think he’s just a little more patient than he was last year.”
Jester has a team-best 28 points (13G, 15A) and is capitalizing on scoring chances that eluded him last season, when he tallied 11 points in 30 games. Also from Alaska, his 13 goals this season are tops on the roster.
“Brendan was a guy that was always on the doorstep,” Heimel said. “He’s finishing. He did a lot of stuff last year that was really fun to watch and then he’d kind of get in tight and have an opportunity to finish and maybe sometimes wouldn’t. So he’s just been consistently finishing.”
Krantz, a wily veteran from Colorado who has developed a chemistry with Jester as both play on the same line along with Tegan Harrington, has evolved and diversified his game. Once a grinder who provided energy, Krantz has now combined that with the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. He has 22 points (8G, 14A) in 23 games. Last season he scored nine times and handed out eight assists in 43 contests.
“Krantz has always been a talented player,” Heimel said, “but he’s been known more for the little things like blocking shots and being physical and grinding it out. To see him produce the way he’s produced this year (has been great).”
Goalie Jake Stephan earned the Frontier Division Star of the Week honors on Tuesday. The net minder stopped 45 of 46 shots on Saturday to improve to 8-2 on the season as the 1-2 punch of him and Lauren Massie continues to prove to be one of the NA3HL’s best. Stephan’s goals against average (1.99) is sixth in the league, while Massie’s (2.00) is seventh.
“Jake and Lauren push each other tremendously,” Heimel said. “And Jake had a great performance against Helena. You want to breed competition and you want those guys competing for that spot in the lineup every week and it’s just going to make those guys better.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Apangalook, Jester, and Krantz making big jumps for Americans (December 10, 2015)