By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
January 8, 2016
The topic of power play production this season has left the Great Falls Americans shaking their head.
That’s until Friday night.
Three-power play tallies sparked the Americans past the visiting Helena Bighorns 5-1 in a penalty-marred contest before a solid crowd of 1,040 spectators at the Great Falls IcePlex.
“I thought we put in a good overall team effort,” defenseman Reed Link said. “All lines were going, from our first line to our fourth line. As a team, you can’t ask for more than that.”
Great Falls, which has now taken four of five from the Bighorns this season, improved to 21-7-2. Helena dropped to 18-11. Great Falls outshot Helena 50-37.
“I thought we played well,” Great Falls head coach Jeff Heimel said. “A lot of power play goals, which is encouraging considering kind of what the course of our power play’s been. I think we gave up more higher quality scoring chances than I wanted. You look at a breakaway in the first, we turn the puck over in front of the net once. Couple of clearing attempts, couple of two on ones. But at the end of the day, our goalie made some good saves and that’s hockey.”
Great Falls came in 18 for 132 on the power play – or 13.6 percent – and in the bottom third of the 34-team North American 3 Hockey League. Excelling in that area Friday night and faring equally well on the penalty kill, the Americans remain atop the Frontier Division with 44 points.
“I don’t think much changed (with the power play),” said Link, who scored a goal. “I just think guys on the power play started to work harder. Once you work harder than the other team, it seems to all come together and start to click as a unit.”
Great Falls goalie Jake Stephan, who came in with a 1.85 goals against average and a .925 save percentage, made several point-blank stops during the first five minutes of the game that kept it scoreless; the net minder looked confident in net from the onset, challenging shooters at the top of his crease and limiting rebounds to a minimum. He stopped 36 of 37 shots.
The Great Falls head coach said Stephan played angles, as well as how far out or not he was from the net, really well Friday night, calling the goalie’s night “smooth” and “boring,” a compliment to that position, he added.
“Nothing is more motivating to a team when you do give up a chance and your goalie decides he’s going to shut someone down and then boom, now we are rushing back the other way and we have an opportunity and maybe we score,” Heimel said. “It’s always been huge. Goaltending’s been so big. You see that in the playoffs so much with different teams. We were happy.”
Already up a skater, after Tegan Harrington was hit in the face with a high stick, drawing a pool of blood behind the Helena net resulting in a double minor, the Americans went on a 5 on 3 for 1:17.
The best chance of the two-man advantage, though, came from Helena after a turnover at the blue line resulted in a breakaway for the Bighorns. The backhand shot was stopped by Stephan.
With 8:48 left in the first period, the Americans converted on the power play – still part of the double minor – when Blake Miller directed a shot toward the net from the blue line. Ricards Bernhards deflected the puck into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
A graduate of C.M. Russell High, Miller entered Friday night’s game with a plus-minus rating of plus-19 to go along with 10 points (five goals, five assists).
Link added another special team’s goal 29 seconds before intermission when his wrist shot snuck by the stick side of Helena net minder Grant Martens, who did his best to keep Helena in the game, stopping 35 of 38 shots through two periods.
Two Great Falls breakaways minutes into the second period, one from Josh Larson and another from Mitchell Ramstad, went by the wayside. On another 5 on 3 in the second frame, Wade Wylie tallied the Americans’ third power play goal of the night. The slap shot near the right dot slipped stick side underneath the right arm of Martens.
Bernhards tallied his second goal of the game in the third period during four-on-four action. Stephan’s shutout was spoiled 21 seconds later when Cody Vanthournout scored from the blue line. Harrington responded right back 1:33 later to extend the margin to 5-1. Helena played the final minute-plus without a goalie in its net, and it wasn’t by choice. Martens pulled himself from the game after allowing the fifth goal, and backup Adam Ranck was ejected soon after that as he was assessed a major for roughing.
The Americans travel to Havre on Saturday for a game against the Glacier Nationals, 2-24-2 and last place in the Frontier Division. The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Junior A Hockey: Americans skate past Helena (January 8, 2016)