By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
March 16, 2016
Sound goaltending can allow hockey teams to make a lot of noise in the playoffs.
That’s why the Great Falls Americans, of the North American 3 Hockey League, are poised to do just that.
The Americans of head coach Jeff Heimel are out to defend their Frontier Division title from a season ago, and that begins Thursday night, when a first-round, best-of-three series with the Bozeman IceDogs commences at the Great Falls IcePlex. The puck is scheduled to drop at 7:30.
Great Falls, which finished the regular season Saturday at 34-11-2 overall and second in points (70) behind first-place Yellowstone (73), qualified for the postseason for many reasons.
While it packs a significant punch on offense, Great Falls has won just as many games with its defense. And the backline of every defense is the goalie.
The Americans have two of the best.
Lauren Massie and Jake Stephan both rank in the top seven of the NA3HL, a league that features more than 30 teams, in goals against average.
Massie, from Wasilla, Alaska, ranks fourth overall in goals against average, allowing just 1.86 per game. He’s 16-7-1 on the season, has shutout his opponent three times and stops 92.9 percent of the shots directed his way.
Stephan, meanwhile, will get the nod Thursday night. A 6-foot, 185-pound Wisconsin native, Stephan’s numbers are equally impressive. He sits at seventh overall in the league in goals against average (2.15), fends off 92.6 percent of the pucks thrown his way and wields a record of 16-4-1.
“You have to have goaltending,” Heimel said, “and I think it’s been a huge part of our success as a program. We’ve always had good goalies here. You need goalies that can make saves and obviously keep you in games when you have breakdowns. Yeah, it’s huge. Very, very big.”
Tyler Garcia, a southpaw forward who joined the team in December, would put the Stephan-Massie tandem up against anyone.
“It’s been great,” Garcia said. “Both of our goalies, they’re starting goalies. That’s how they show up. That’s how they prepare. I think personally we have the best in our division. I haven’t seen the league. In our division, absolutely we have the best goaltending. That’s huge for us.”
Forward Tanner Congdon (64 points), Ricards Bernhards (52) and Josh Larson (46) are some of Great Falls’ most productive players. Blue liners Reed Link, Miles Giorgione and Arseny Ivanov all warrant praise for their numbers during even-strength action.
“Positive energy’s huge,” Garcia said of what’s working lately for the Americans. “A lot of teams this time of the year kind of get down on each other, (because) everybody’s been together for so long. It’s just hard work.”
Great Falls and Bozeman (29-11-7) have split six meetings this season. Kegan Couture leads Bozeman in points with 76 (28 goals, 48 assists) and Nicholas Thomas, a two-way defenseman, holds a team-best plus-minus rating of plus-37. Goalie Stephen Frank allows 2.4 goals a game and owns a 92.8 save percentage.
The two teams battle in Game 2 Friday night in Bozeman and an if-necessary game is scheduled for Sunday at 4 in the afternoon in Great Falls. The winner of the series faces the winner of Yellowstone-Gillette in the finals.
“We know what we are capable of doing,” Heimel said. “We just need to play our hockey. We’re focused a lot on us this week.”
Said Garcia, “We’re so ready to go that I don’t see anyone stopping us.”
Perhaps some of that confidence has to do with his goalies stopping everyone.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Behind strong goaltending, Americans primed for playoff run (March 16, 2016)