Bighorns face elimination tonight after being blanked at home

By JEFF WINDMUELLER Independent Record | Posted: Saturday, March 6, 2010

The top two teams of the NorPac America West Division seem to be content trading one blowout after another.

Unfortunately for the Helena Bighorns, Friday night was not the kind of blowout they were hoping for.

The Bighorns looked little like the two-time defending Cascade Cup champions or the regular season division title holders as they gave up a 5-0 shutout to second-seeded Yellowstone in the Helena Ice Arena. The Quake take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, which resumes tonight at 7:30 p.m.

Chris Rinaldi scored a pair of goals, Alex Larson had 28 saves and, according to the Web sitepointstreak.com, the Quake shut out Helena at home for the first time in more than five seasons, dating back to when they were the Queen City Cutthroats.

“Alex Larson is a tremendous goaltender,” said Quake head coach Sean Hogan. “He’s very athletic, tall and he gets in front of the shot.”

Of course, it didn’t matter much as the Yellowstone defense destroyed any chance of Helena getting a decent shot. The Quake seemingly trapped the Bighorns every time they crossed the blue line, dominated them physically along the boards and put together one incredible penalty kill after another.

Twice the Bighorns held a 5-on-3 advantage for a full two minutes, and both times the Quake reduced them to a couple of off-center attempts.

“We never tested (Larson),” said Bighorns assistant coach Chris Hartly. “If you were to chart them, they were mostly perimeter shots.”

The biggest struggle, Hartly said, was keeping up with their larger opponent’s physical game.

“We weren’t hitting them. If we don’t, they get speed and pick up momentum,” Hartly said. “The bottom line is we weren’t willing to support each other.”

Yellowstone, meanwhile, muscled its way to one goal after another.

Nick Kent scored the first goal on a 4-on-4 after the Yellowstone won a face off in Helena’s zone. The quick wrister went into the left side of the net at the 14:44 mark.

A little over two minutes later, Matthew Tackett added a second, sweeping up the garbage left by a rebound from Helena goalie Ryan Sutliffe. Though the defense was scrambling and Sutliffe flopping, the Bighorns couldn’t clear the forward out of the crease.

The goals only looked worse from there.

Right as the Bighorns looked to be keeping better control of the puck and a Kevin Clark slap shot was stopped by Larson on a power play, the Quake turned around and Rinaldi made one incredible move after another to score his first goal with 39 seconds left in the first period.

He dipsied around one defender and doodled around the other before lifting a shot over the glove of Sutliffe.

“Mostly, we were working our butts off out there,” Rinaldi said. “We kept hitting them and they got scared.

“They would be a little hesitant.”

Rinaldi used those little moments to his advantage after a scoreless second period.

About seven minutes into the third, Clark attempted a pass at center ice but dug his heel in, sending him to his back. Rinaldi picked up the puck and had a direct line to Sutliffe, who couldn’t stop the low wristshot.

Nic Wackerly came in to replace the starter, who finished with 24 saves. Wackerly would stop a penalty shot by Rinaldi but give up a goal to Mathew Schulz before the Bighorns completely fell apart.

That seems to be the motto of the teams after Yellowstone won the first game of the series 5-2 before Helena came back on Wednesday with a 7-3 victory.

“All three games have been blowouts,” Rinaldi said. “I didn’t expect any of that.”

If the pattern continues, the two teams could be seeing a Game 5 on Sunday at 5 p.m.

“Helena’s a good team and we do not expect them to roll over tomorrow,” Hogan said.

Notes: The last time the Bighorns were shut out was Dec. 18, 2008 at Yellowstone … the Bighorns were 0 for 13 on the power play while Yellowstone finished 1 for 12…Helena is now 7-5 against Yellowstone.