GREAT FALLS — The Great Falls Americans didn’t play like a team on the brink of elimination as they dominated the Helena Bighorns from start to finish with their 4-0 victory Friday night at Great Falls IcePlex.
The Americans forced what essentially is a now a single-elimination game against Bighorns in the best-of-3 series Saturday night at the Helena Ice Arena. The winner of the contest will qualify for the Fraser Cup National Tournament on March 27 in Chicago.
The Americans, propelled by the performance of their goalie Drew Scites, who saved 36 of 36 shots, positions themselves to upset the top-seeded Bighorns, in a do-or-die contest in Helena.
"I think it hit us that our backs were against the wall," Scites said. "It's do or die, and we went out, and played as hard as we could because there was no guarantee for tomorrow, and we had to give ourselves tomorrow."
The Bighorns, who are looking to qualify for their first-ever Fraser Cup Tournament birth with coach Bob Richards, have struggled in the second half of the first game of the series, in which they won 5-3, and the momentum Great Falls established, carried over into Game 2.
During the playoffs, the Bighorns have had topsy-turvy series with both the Missoula Bruins, and the Great Falls Americans, and have been threatened to be eliminated in the playoffs by both teams.
Helena, collectively combined to score 11 goals in the previous three playoff contests, experienced a drought, as they were successfully shut down by the American’s stout defense.
With momentum delicately teetering in favor of the Americans, Bighorns Richards knows his team will have to modify its approach against an Americans squad now surging with confidence.
Great Falls coach Greg Sears said he was pleased with his team’s victory, but acknowledged they would have to sustain the intensity, and momentum they displayed on their home ice, as the series moves back to Helena.
"I think our shot selection was a little better tonight," Sears said. "We were able to weather some storms that we didn't last night, and (Scites) started to gain some confidence throughout the game. (Our team was motivated) by the elimination-factor, and hopefully, we come out to play one more day because it's the same situation tomorrow night, and it'll be a good one tomorrow."
The Americans opened the game by scoring a momentum propelling goal they never relinquished. Great Falls continued to expand on its early lead as they controlled the flow the game.
Great Falls player Jens Juliussen scored a goal in the first 25 seconds of the game. Other American players continued the avalanche of unanswered goals with Nick Torres scoring with 7:30 gone in the second, and Hendrick Robel scoring with 11:56 gone in the second, and Juliussen scoring his second goal with 38 seconds gone in the third period.
Richards acknowledged the series, which Helena had the distinct advantage winning five of the eight meetings during the regular season, would come down to little things such as play on special teams and exploiting mismatches during line shifts.
Richard knows his team must improve if they are to advance against a Great Falls team that now has the momentum moving into the third, and deciding game of the series.
"When they scored the first goal in the first 25 seconds of the game that put us on our heels," Richards said. "From the start of the game they played desperate, to be honest, and they deserved to win, we didn't deserve to win the hockey game (tonight) that is for sure."