HELENA — With the Helena Bighorns facing the possibility of having a 38-win season marred by an early North American 3 Hockey League playoff exit and trailing the upstart Missoula Junior Bruins by two goals at the start of the third period, forward Darren Donovan took matters into his own hands.
The Bighorns found themselves down by a two-goal deficit twice in the game. The Bruins answered with a game-tying third-period goal by Helena's Kaden Lindberg with 5:26 gone in the third period, but lost the lead 31 seconds later with a shot by Misha Akatnov.
That is when Donovan, who had already netted two goals, found a way to propel his team.
With 8:37 gone in the third period, Donovan scored his third and final goal of the game, giving his team the momentum they didn't relinquish.
Catapulted by the energy Donovan created, teammate Luc Cross netted the final goal with 14:38 gone in the period that allowed Helena the opportunity to advance and face off with the Great Falls Americans in the next round.
"You know (Donovan) plays big in big games," Bighorns coach Bob Richards said. "The bigger the game, the better he is for sure. Donny plays one speed, and he's going at 100 miles per hour. That is all he does, and you know when he goes out there he is going to go hard."
The Bighorns, who open their best-of-3 series division finals against Great Falls at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Helena Ice Arena, have been lifted by Donovan's play all season.
"(Donovan) is one of those guys amped up for big games, and wants the puck to make plays when it matters most," Richards said.
Donovan, who recorded his third career hat-trick last Saturday, experienced success in hockey since he was a 16-year-old from North Pole, Alaska. And he is on the cusp of transitioning to play a higher level of hockey.
"During my junior year of high school, I got quite a bit of offers from different teams and leagues out of state, and it was nerve-wracking at first," Donovan said. "I never thought I was going to do any good coming from Alaska to a densely populated place."
His first-ever high-level experience in hockey came with the Minnesota Revolution, a triple-A hockey team he became a member of during the 2016-2017 season.
Halfway through he was dissatisfied and opted for a trade. Donovan found himself dealt to the Iowa Wild before Christmas of 2016 to another triple-A team.
"I wanted to leave and go with another team," Donovan said. "(Being traded) was a good experience. I would never trade anything or go back and do something else. It felt like moving around and going to different places gave me an opportunity to better myself and allow myself to get ice time. When I get a better opportunity (in hockey), I might as well make the most of it."
Donovan's reason's for a change of scenery early was simple.
"Honestly, the only reason I wanted a change was we were struggling quite a bit in Minnesota, and there were many things the coach didn't promise," Donovan said.
During the 2017-2018 season, Donovan received an opportunity to play with the Nashville Junior Predators and chose to stick with them rather than playing with Iowa again.
Donovan played one season in Nashville until he became a member of the Bighorns for the 2018-2019 campaign.
"Learning new systems and new teammates, I think hockey has been a great experience to do what you love, and it forces you to grow up on your own in many ways," Donovan said. "It's cool because you have to figure out little tasks, how to solve big problems on your own and be a little independent."
Donovan expressed feeling a part of something special at the start with the Bighorns as they find themselves two victories away from qualifying for the Fraser Cup Tournament in Chicago.
"I never knew what was going to be best for me or where I would go to play hockey," Donovan said. "There were a lot of different states or leagues, and I am just glad I ended up choosing Helena. They are one of the best teams I've ever been on, and one of the best experiences I've ever had. Playing in Helena is a whole different game playing in that rink and with that group of guys."
Back to the Future
Donovon, who has another year of eligibility to play for the Bighorns if he opts to return, aspires to play hockey at the highest level he can, for as long as he can.
Coming from Alaska, one of the hockey hotbeds of the United States, playing hockey was just part of the culture.
"Many players leave Alaska and play hockey at a high level, and I honestly think it is a hockey hotbed with outstanding players growing up in Alaska," Donovon said. "It is an especially amazing experience from a hockey standpoint. Growing up in that state is an extraordinary place to grow up with an opportunity to play hockey all year long in an indoor or an outdoor rink. There are several options in that area with three different outdoor skating rinks in the region where I am from. It is prevalent in Anchorage, an area that is even more populated."
As Donovan mulls over his collegiate options, he is still leaving the door open.
"It's a hard decision for one, and playing college hockey is extremely hard," Donovan said. "I can't say I have anything close to many offers, but it is hard to make a decision. You don't know what is going to be best for you. I can go out and check out a college, but I'll never know what the atmosphere in the locker room is going to be like, or the attitude. Making the decision is nerve-wracking because it changes your life. Looking back, I am glad I choose the decision to play junior-level hockey. Hopefully, it will benefit me years down the road when I chose to come to a school, and whatever I choose, I am just hoping for the best."
With the Bighorns having to come from a two-goal deficit twice in what became a single-elimination game, it brought the team that captured home ice and the Frontier Divisional crown closer together.
The Bighorns had to overcome a persistent Bruins team that entered the playoffs winning six of its last seven hockey games. Richards said he felt his team would benefit facing adversity in playoff hockey.
"It is a good thing that we came out of that game and were able to get that experience playing under that stress," Richards said. "We were 20 minutes away from being done for the year, and I think facing that reality was not easy."
Richards said his players are now ready for anything after that experience. The Bighorns face Great Falls, a team the Bighorns have defeated five times out of eight games this season.
"It doesn't matter what happened at this point because we aren't going to give up and we are going to stay composed," Richards said. "The game against the Bruins reinforced the fact that our team can keep on going, stay focused and get their experience during high stress and high pressure. We will pull through as long as we stay focused."
Bighorns defenseman Justin Sullivan knows Great Falls, a team similar in style and depth, will present a challenge as both sides fight to qualify for Fraser Cup.
"They move the puck well, and they have a few tough line shifts that can get the puck to the net," Sullivan said. "They are a physical, hard-working team and they are in the same boat. They are a good match-up, and it's an interesting one. We could go out and do our best to hope for a win each night we play."
Forward Kaden Lindberg said he felt his team needs to stick with the system to topple Great Falls.
"I think we should just listen to our coaches and stick with our system, and I think we will be good," Lindberg said. "We will go away with a win. We aren't going to back down, and I think we will get it done. I think we have much momentum for sure and we are way better than that team. We are entering the season with a lot of confidence and momentum. Early in the season, I could see us shift when we got scored on. When they were down by two goals, everyone knew what was going to happen in the locker room."