MISSOULA — Missoula native Bill Lucas could’ve been playing high school hockey this past season, but he instead decided to challenge himself at the junior level.
The goals and assists have been few and far between for Lucas during the season, but he’s one of only three players to play in all 49 games for the Junior Bruins, and he came through at the most opportune time on Friday. His goal in the final four minutes broke a tie against Helena and kept alive Missoula’s season with a 2-1 NA3HL playoff victory at Glacier Ice Rink.
The teams will play a winner-take-all Game 3 in Helena at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
“He was unsure if he could play at this level, and I think some others were unsure,” Missoula Junior Bruins head coach Cliff Cook said of the 5-foot-9, 160-pound 18-year-old. “He’s proven himself. I’m very proud of what he’s done this year considering a lot of people probably didn’t think he could compete.”
Lucas and fellow Montanan John Bannon, of Deer Lodge, provided the scoring, but it was goalie Evan Williams, from Texas, who gave the Junior Bruins a chance to win. He saved 48 of 49 shots, allowing just one goal when Abraham Laggis tied the game with a shot from the blue line with 18:50 to play in the third period.
“He played out of his mind,” Cook said. “Evan was unbelievable tonight. He’d probably tell you that’s the biggest win of his junior career not just because of the win but because of how he played. He gave us a chance.”
Lucas’ goal to put the Bruins ahead came minutes after the Bruins survived 90 seconds of 4-on-4 action. Fellow forward Misha Akatnov had a breakaway opportunity, but when his shot was blocked away, Lucas followed up on the rebound for the go-ahead goal with 3:34 to play.
“I was just totally pumped,” Lucas said. “I saw that rebound pop out and knew I had to bury it.”
Bannon had provided the initial spark for Missoula when he scored with 21 seconds to play in the first period. It was quite the moment for Bannon, who took a year off from the team last season to attend Montana State, came back to Missoula this season only to break his ankle seven games in before returning in late January.
“The energy level of the team since he’s been back has just exploded,” Cook said. “He’s a big part of what we were doing early on. Now you can see what he means. He’s our energy guy for sure. He’s been playing great since he’s got back from his injury. A lot of guys like that will come back and be skittish. He’s been great.”
Vadim Zubkov and Christian Ward assisted on Bannon's goal. Akatnov and Jim Seielstad, of Missoula, were credited with assists on Lucas’ goal.