HELENA — The Helena Bighorns and the Great Falls Americans are no stranger to each other.
Both sit alone atop the NA3HL’s Frontier Division with just one point separating them.
Add a little bad blood and some colorful dialog between the players, the two teams created a nice little rivalry three months into the season.
“Whenever we play Great Falls, there is always a little different level to it,” forward Luc Cross said. “I never heard two teams talk so much trash to each other. They have always been the top competition for us.”
So Cross took the rivalry into his own hands. He scored a hat-trick as the Bighorns came back to claim a 4-1 win at the Helena Ice Arena on Saturday night.
“It’s a rivalry game and I was just trying to fight for goals all game.” Cross said.
The Bighorns got the puck to start the game, but the Americans quickly took control.
They attacked the net after George Nuutinen stole the puck on a cross but the shot was wide right.
Great Falls continued to push with shots by Body Boyce and Levi Mesi, but the Bighorns defense stayed strong.
Helena tried to gain momentum with a shot on goal by Nicholas Noel, but the Americans did not let up.
Finally, Great Falls took the lead in the final minute of the first period when Luke Richesin found Cody Dearing on a break-away for the game’s opening goal.
The momentum shifted to Helena in the second period when both teams became more physical.
The teams got into a scrum in front of the net ending in a Bighorns power-play. The Americans held Helena for the two minutes, but just after both teams were at full strength, Dearing was called for roughing setting up another power play.
This time the Bighorns capitalized as Cross found the back of the net on an assist from Noel.
Helena held all the momentum in the third quarter and because of the physical play, kept receiving power-play opportunities.
Great Falls made an attempt to take the lead when Nuutinen went behind the net and found Ben Rinckey for an open opportunity but his shot was offline.
The Bighorns had multiple power-plays midway through the period including a 5-on-3 advantage and persevered to take the lead when Cross scored on a rebound in front of the net. Two minutes later he completed the hat trick.
“(Great Falls) let up a little when they started to get the penalties,” Cross said. “We got the puck moving and found a way to score.”
Helena ended the comeback with a goal by Darren Donovan to claim its 21st win of the season.
“We knew it was going to be a hard fought game,” Bighorns coach Bob Richards said. “Give credit to our guys. They kept their cool and kept working.”
The Bighorns continue their season on Thursday against Butte before heading to Minnesota for the NA3HL showcase.
As for the rivalry, Cross looks forward to continuing it during the middle of January.
“I love playing Great Falls,” Cross said. “I hate them.”