Grauer, Bighorns top Maulers

Moments after the Helena Bighorns’ exhilirating 3-2 win over the always-feisty Missoula Maulers on Saturday, Helena forward Nolan Grauer was still dumbfounded as to how his game-winning goal went in.

With 11:31 left in the game at Helena Ice Arena, Grauer took the puck wide around the outside and behind the net. The 18-year-old looked to get a pass to one of his teammates out front, but instead the puck curved around the corner and found the back of the net, much to Maulers goalie Andy DiCristofaro’s surprise.

“I had no idea how that went in, but I didn’t care,” said Grauer, who had with two goals in the contest. “I was just glad it did.”

The Maulers (16-9) had one final chance to send the game to overtime, but Chad James batted away Missoula’s attempt in the waning seconds to send Bighorns fans into a frenzy. James had Helena’s other goal, which came on a power play midway through the second period.

“Missoula’s a great team, they always come to battle and play us tough,” said Helena assistant coach Chris Hartly, whose team improved to 23-1 with its 13th straight win. “There’s a lot of history between these two teams and there’s been some pretty epic games and tonight was just one of those.”

Not only did the Helena faithful get to see the type of back-and-forth battle they’ve come to expect against Missoula, they also got a first-hand look at the newest member of the Bighorns, Kyle Mills. Mills was recently acquired in a trade that sent Arram Chinarian and David Smith to the Eugene Generals. Hartly liked what he saw from the 20-year-old defenseman.

“Mills is a really aggressive teammate and he’s highly skilled,” the coach said. “He doesn’t sit back and wait for people to come to him, he just goes right after them.”

Grauer, who had six points the previous night against Billings, said the win streak is great but his team is more concerned about the postseason. Hartly couldn’t agree more.

“We try not to focus too much on (the streak),” Hartly said. “We’re just getting the team prepared for playoffs.

“That’s when the win streak really matters.”

Neil Rooney and Dan Conner scored for Missoula.

NOTES: The Bighorns have traded goaltender Noble Tucker to the Tri-City Titans to complete an earlier deal. Tucker was 3-0 with a 2.15 goals against average and .916 save percentage this season. The move leaves the Bighorns with 20-year-old Ryan Sutliffe and Nic Wackerly in net.