By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
March 23, 2016
GREAT FALLS, MT — Josh Larson and six of his Great Falls Americans teammates are beginning to see the end.
“I love playing here,” Larson said of the Great Falls IcePlex. “The crowd’s awesome. They’re always loud. I always see the same people in the stands, too. So they’re pretty loyal. It’s awesome. I love it here. It’s one of the best crowds I’ve played in front of.”
Larson is a 20-year-old southpaw from Anchorage, Alaska. As a center on the top line, he’s been a key cog in the Americans’ success the past season-plus. His 17 goals this season, including two in a series-clinching victory against Bozeman over the weekend, has catapulted Great Falls to yet another Frontier Division finals appearance.
After the season, Larson will have exhausted his eligibility at this level. Thursday night, when Great Falls begins its best-of-three series with the Yellowstone Quake at 7:30, marks his last time skating competitively at the IcePlex. The same goes for Connor Barta, Jake Stephan, Stevan Goran, Reed Link, Tyler Garcia and Austin Krantz.
“Hockey is one thing that I fell in love with really, really early, and I’ll never stop loving hockey,” said Larson, who wants to play college hockey, something he will pursue harder once the season concludes. “It’s got to come to an end sometime, junior hockey, but you just have to make the best of it and that’s what we’re going to do this weekend.”
Larson, who’s assisted on 32 goals this season and maintains a plus-37, said the task of defending the team’s Frontier title from a year ago is “extra motivation.”
“It’s fuel to the fire,” Larson, who plays alongside Tanner Congdon and Ricards Bernards, said. “It gets us going. It’s really cool to be defending it. I’ve never really defended anything before, except in high school. But it’s just exciting. We’ll be ready to go for sure.”
Fourth-year head coach Jeff Heimel said Larson has a great ability to perform his best when it matters the most.
“He’s just a playoff player,” Heimel said. “He shows up at the right times. It’s nice when guys that are old like that show up, and that’s good; that’s leadership.”
Great Falls is 3-5 against the Quake this season. A 5-4 defeat on March 12 was costly for the Americans. In what was the final game of the regular season, Great Falls needed a victory to secure the top seed in the playoffs. Instead, the Americans stayed in the two spot, and because of it, the Quake has home-ice advantage this weekend. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday in Cody, Wyo. A third, if-necessary game is slated for Sunday, also in Wyoming.
“We’re excited,” Heimel said. “They’re a good hockey team. I think anytime you have the two teams that finished atop the division, as far as the regular season’s concerned, that’s always a good thing.”
Said Larson: “It’s a good rivalry game. Throughout the year, they probably got the best of us. You just have to go into the series (with the mindset that) anything can happen in the playoffs, so it’s going to be a good one.”
Heimel was most impressed with his team’s defense in the opening-round matchup with the IceDogs, as was Larson.
Jake Stephan, Great Falls’ starting net minder in this year’s playoffs, certainly helped with that. Allowing just two goals in two games, Stephan stopped 64 of the 66 shots he faced.
“Jake played unreal in both games,” Larson said.
Even though Great Falls struggled to find the back of the net, it won because it impressively protected its own. That’s often the case in the playoffs as action is more congested and low scoring compared to the regular season.
“Good teams find lots of ways to win,” Heimel said. “I think in that one, we ran into a hot goalie, so we couldn’t really score, but at the same time, we didn’t lapse as far as the game plan is concerned.
“What was most impressive is how we played in the overtime situations defensively and how we were patient. That was definitely encouraging. That’s the type of hockey you want to play in the playoffs.”
Yellowstone led the Frontier Division in scoring with 225 goals during the regular season. Max Doner, who tallied 30, is one of eight Quake players to register 19 goals or more. The Quake edged Gillette in overtime of Game 3 to win their first-round series.
Larson said the Yellowstone packs more offensive firepower than Bozeman.
“They have a few more players who can put the puck in the net and a little bit faster too,” he said. “We just have to maintain the puck and focus on not turning it over.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Larson, Americans set for Frontier finals against Yellowstone (March 23, 2016)