By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
November 12, 2015
The Great Falls Americans are still first in the Frontier Division.
But it hasn’t been all that easy.
Great Falls, 11-4 on the season, has played in six one-goal games and is 3-3 in those contests.
Still, it’s atop the league with 22 points, one point ahead of second-place Yellowstone.
Head coach Jeff Heimel isn’t being picky.
“Any time you’re in first place a third of the way through the season,” Heimel said. “I feel like we are happy to be here. We don’t really have an expectation as far as wins and losses. I just think you want to put yourself in a good spot at each point during the season … and just continue to put ourselves in a good spot to enter the playoffs with momentum. That’s all we are really looking for, is get better every week.”
Brendan Jester, who came over from the Glacier Nationals early in the season last year, leads the team in points at 19. His nine goals and 10 assists are both team highs. From Anchorage, Alaska, Jester has excelled in large part due to his consistency, his head coach said.
“He’s always been doing the right things,” Heimel said. “When you go and you lose guys like you did last year … You expect everyone to step up to the plate and carry the torch, and I think he’s done that. It’s impressive. He recognizes that you have to have leaders and guys to step up and he’s done it, which has been great.”
Great Falls’ 12.6 percent with the man-advantage leaves a lot to be desired, especially considering all of the talent that it puts out on the ice. The penalty kill at 88.6 percent makes up for some of that, but Heimel is still looking for his team to capitalize when it’s five on four.
“Where I think we are underachieving the most is on special teams,” Heimel said.
Time in-between the pipes has been split between Lauren Massie and Jake Stephan. Massie, who boasts a 5-3 record, has allowed two goals per game and has a .925 save percentage. Stephan, meanwhile, has appeared in six games and won five of them. The Wisconsin native has a 2.17 goals against average and lets in roughly eight goals every 100 shots directed his way.
Heimel is certainly not disappointed to be playing two net minders, even if it does mean he doesn’t have a true No. 1.
“I think they’ve done fine,” Heimel said. “We just have, again, good goaltenders. Even Kevin (Hale), the guy who’s stepped in at times, our third goalie, has done well. But really we are doing what we want to do. We’ve always had two goaltenders.
“Traditionally, one guy has gotten a little bit more of the workload, but at the same time we understand the importance and the long term effects a season can have on players. If there’s one position that we care about staying healthy throughout the whole year, it’s obviously our goaltending.”
Heimel is particularly pleased with his players along the blue line. Names such as Arseny Ivanov, Miles Giorgione, Reed Link and Connor Barta, the team’s captain, have allowed forwards to be aggressive because of their skill on the backend. The four have combined for a plus-minus rating of plus-52. Forwards Tanner Congdon (13 points), Adam Apangalook (14), Austin Krantz (13) and Stevan Goran (11), among others, have provided an offensive punch for the Americans.
Wade Wylie, who scored 14 goals and dished out 16 assists last season and has been playing in a junior Canadian league this year, has been acquired and will play Friday night when the Americans travel to Helena to take on the Bighorns (9-5). The puck will drop at 7:05 p.m. Great Falls will return to the IcePlex on Saturday night for a game against the Billings Bulls (3-9) at 7:30 p.m.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Junior A Hockey: It hasn’t been easy, but Americans atop Frontier Division (November 12, 2015)