Bighorns drop opener at nationals to Iowa team

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — The Helena Bighorns stumbled to start the USA Hockey Tier III Junior A hockey tournament on Friday, dropping their game to the Dubuque Thunderbirds 4-2.

For the third straight year, the NorPac’s Cascade Cup champions have lost at least one game in the first round — a three-game round robin — which will make it difficult to advance to the semifinals.

They face Boulder, Colo., today at 12:30 p.m., a team they defeated twice in the 2009-10 preseason.

“(The Thunderbirds) were exactly what we expected — good size and they skate well,” said Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham. “They’re as high-end as us, (Yellowstone) and Missoula.”

After a scoreless first period, Helena trailed 3-0 just past the midway point of the second when the Thunderbirds scored two goals just four seconds apart.

Marcus Andary scored 45 seconds into the period to give Dubuque a 1-0 lead, and Samuel Smith and Daniel Kolenda followed up with goals at the 11:20 and 11:16 marks.

“We were pretty tight to start the game,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t think we played that badly.

“We had a couple of turnovers in our zone and they capitalized.”

The Bighorns answered when defenseman Kevin Clark scored on assists from Gehrett Sargis and Rudy Pino with just under 10 minutes left in the period.

Helena made it a game in the third when Nolan Grauer put-back a ricochet off Dubuque goalie Bradley Makowski’s pads.

Kyle Mills passed the puck from the point to Damon Hollandsworth in the corner of the rink. Hollandsworth snapped a shot from a sharp angle, and Grauer threw in the rebound from cross ice for the power-play goal.

The Bighorns were able to keep the Thunderbirds at bay until the waning minutes when they scored their fourth and final goal on the Bighorns unmanned net, they had pulled the goalie in favor of the extra attacker in hopes of a tying goal.

Neither team had many power-play opportunities in a relatively clean game.

“It wasn’t chippy; it wasn’t a real physical game,” Cunningham said.

The Thunderbirds outshot the Bighorns 27-25 as Makowski outperformed Helena’s Ryan Sutliffe in net.

The Bighorns will now have to try to sweep their final two games of the first round, including a face-off with reigning national champ New Hampshire, and hope for a wildcard spot.

“We just have to look forward to tomorrow’s game,” Cunningham said.