OFF THE BENCH:

By JEFF WINDMUELLER Independent Record | Posted: Monday, March 8, 2010

Game 5.

It doesn’t have quite the reputation of Game 7, but for the Junior A hockey players in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, it brings the same level of intensity.

While single-game deciders like the Super Bowl have a certain air to them, there’s no build up better than when two teams have already faced off, buried the puck in each other’s nets and, occasionally, dragged their knuckles across the others’ faces.

By the end of Game 1, they have gotten to know each other. By the end of Game 2, they’ve gotten to dislike each other. By the end of Game 3, the same two guys that slammed together like runaway freight trains have a reason to do it again.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this.

By Sunday’s Game 5 between the Helena Bighorns and Yellowstone Quake, the definitive story lines in the America West Division championship series had already been established.

The two teams traded off the first two games in the series, a little like the way the Quake gave the Bighorns three of their five regular-season losses.

But on Friday, when the Bighorns returned home to the Helena Ice Arena, something changed.

Yellowstone scored three goals in the first period and would roll to a 5-0 shutout and 2-1 series lead.

Yellowstone’s Chris Rinaldi began to show a clear dominance on the ice, which culminated in a pair of goals on Sunday. He also pointed out a flaw in the Bighorns: they were shying away from the hits.

He called them scared and hesitant. And, in many respects, they were.

The one thing they weren’t lacking, however, was a crowd to back them.

On Saturday, the Bighorns returned to the ice with renewed enthusiasm and the largest attendance of the year. Over 1,300 packed the stands at the Helena Ice Arena for the Bighorns’ 4-2 win.

Like the team they were cheering, there was no crisis in faith.

Even when the final seconds were ticking off in the 5-0 loss, the fans kept their feet stomping, hands clapping and deafening foghorns blasting. And, just like the endings of all the other games, the Bighorns took a second to lift their sticks and acknowledge those that were still there to congratulate them.

By Saturday, a strong contingent of Yellowstone fans continued to challenge Helena for vocal dominance, but the sheer number of Bighorn supporters was overwhelming.

And for those who rode out the long weekend and returned Sunday for one more incredible match up, they certainly got their money’s worth.

When Cody Hess scored midway through the second period to tie it up, the crowd was electric. Standing on their feet, screaming for the squid that Hess picked up and heaved over the glass, the fans had little doubt that the Bighorns would do it again. Sure enough, a little over a minute later, Gehrett Sargis buried the puck then was buried beneath a pile of his teammates. 

Twice more the Bighorns would score in the 5-2 win. The final goal came on a fluke empty-netter by Zack Maxwell that bounced off the glass before sailing down the ice and sliding through the crease.

The players might argue that that little bit of magic was thanks to the will of their fans.

Do they make a difference?

“Absolutely,” said Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham. “Last night was phenomenal, tonight was great. Absolutely, these guys talk about it in the locker room, it’s definitely a factor.”

“We have the best fans in the entire league, we have the best fans in the entire nation,” said veteran forward Rudi Pino. “I couldn’t be happier playing in any other place.”