The Helena Bighorns begin a 4 game home stand to finish the month of January, hosting the NA3HL Frontier Division front-runner Yellowstone Quake January 20-21, and the Gillette Wild January 27-28. All home games begin at 7:05pm.
Helena is coming home after 2 straight weekends on the road. They split the first two games of the month, shutting out the Glacier Nationals 3-0 on a hat trick by Brad Estrada (27G-16A-43pnts) and backed by lights-out goaltending by Alex Kruger (5-8-0-1, 3.64 GAA, .920 SV%) turning away all 42 recorded shots from the Havre, MT junior team. Following the win in Havre was a loss in Missoula to the Junior Bruins by a score of 6-0, powered by a hat trick by Christian Ward and goaltender Tanner Loucks saved all 22 shot attempts the Bighorns could muster.
Last weekend, the Horns visited Gillette, Wyoming. Despite the high rankings, the Bighorns gave the Wild two tough contests. Friday night saw the ‘Horns end the first period with a 1 goal lead (scored by John Heddle, returning from injury) and out-shot the Wild. Penalty struggles for Helena in the second against the league-leading power play unit didn’t help the Bighorns chances, as Gillette went into the second intermission with a 3-1 lead. 3rd period action was a back and forth game; Gillette netting one more goal and Helena’s Ben Kottmeier added their second goal to make it a 4-2 game, and the wild sealed the deal on an empty netter to make the final 5-2.
Saturday night was more of the same, event the same result; a 5-2 loss to Gillette. Brad Estrada scored both goals for the Bighorns while goaltender Nick Battaglia (5-8-0-1, 4.62 GAA, .901 SV%) faced 106 shots between the two games.
New Bighorn Forward Shawn Mitchell made his mark this weekend, bringing some needed grit to the Helena roster. The 6’1″, 220lb Wasilla, AK native added a layer of physicality to the team immediately; even sparring against the Wild for the first fight the Bighorns have had since November 2016. Mitchell will no doubt be a spark for this team who still struggles to find their own identity as a team.
Both Wyoming teams come to Helena with the playoffs a forgone conclusion, while Helena will still battle for the 6th seed. With the addition of the 8th team (MIS) into the Frontier Division, the top 2 seed teams will have a first round bye, while the 3rd seed will face the 6th seed; the 4th will battle the 5th seed. If the opening round were to begin today, that would put the Bighorns up against Gillette, and Missoula and Bozeman would play each other. Currently, Billings is the closest in points to Helena, but would need to win every game in their schedule and even more unlikely, the Bighorns would have to lose every game including their last one against the Bulls, slated for February 25th at Centennial Ice Rink in Billings.
No matter what the standings say at this moment, every game counts for Helena.