By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
January 19, 2017
When Lauren Massie and Jake Stephan left after the 2015-16 season, the goalie position appeared to be a weakness for the Great Falls Americans and their upcoming campaign.
Head coach Jeff Heimel didn’t see it that way, for during his handful of years behind the bench he has always had goalies ranked atop the North American 3 Hockey League as some of the best and most productive.
He’d find someone.
“You have to have a good goalie,” Heimel said. “You have to play from the net out, that’s always been our motto. We’ve always tried to keep that goals against average as low as it possibly can be. Solid defense and good goaltending is kind of the foundation every year.”
This year is no exception.
Nick Nast, the team’s No. 1 net minder, is 14-2-1-1 in his first season in Great Falls. His 2.22 goals against average is 10th in the 48-team league. His .933 save percentage is fifth.
“He’s quick,” Heimel said. “His big thing is he moves side-to-side extremely well. His rebound control is maybe the best that we’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
In two shootout victories last weekend against the Yellowstone Quake, the Frontier Division’s leader in points, his pads served as a repellant to all but three of the 66 shots sent his way.
And several more in the shootout sessions.
“He’s been clutch in big situations,” Heimel said. “Last weekend he stepped up to the plate and played well. We swept Yellowstone in their building. It was great, and he was a huge part of that.”
He has also been a huge part of the team’s 25-3-2-3 record to date. For the past several seasons, whether it’s Evan Hauser or Stephan or Massie, there haven’t been many question marks between the pipes for the Americans, leading to two straight Frontier titles and consecutive appearances in the league’s national tournament in Illinois.
Kyler Ayers, the team’s backup, has eight wins and one overtime loss. While most of his time in net has been against the bottom teams, Ayers’ numbers are still impressive: five shutouts, .79 goals against average and a .961 save percentage.
The goalies flourish here, then move on to bigger and better things. Stephan, for example, is starting as a freshman at Division III Concordia College (Minn.), according to Heimel.
“Guys see that, and they see we are doing things the right way,” he said. “As a result, I think we are able to replenish that position every year. Nick is talking to a large amount of Division III schools right now and has a ton of interest from colleges as well. So that will be another guy when he picks where he is going to go at whatever point.”
When a goalie with Stephan’s or Nast’s ability departs, Heimel is immediately out on the recruiting trail. Past success, the fifth-year mentor added, has helped make the process a little bit easier.
“If you look at every goaltender we’ve had the last four years, they go on and play college hockey,” Heimel said. “Yes, you have to replace the goalie position, but it’s a pretty easy sell. Like, hey, look at these four guys. This is where this kid is playing, that kid’s playing.”
The Americans, second in the Frontier Division with 55 points, two back of the Quake, have gone 22 straight games without suffering a loss in regulation, which will be put to the test Friday night at the Great Falls IcePlex when the Gillette Wild (24-7-1-0) visit the Americans for a 7:30 p.m. start.
“Our goal is to put ourselves in the best possible situation to win a championship,” Heimel said. “And for us that means becoming the number one seed in the regular season, and that’s where it starts. From there, you just have to continue to build.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Nast continuing tradition in net for Americans (January 19, 2017)