It was a night for the lesser-known stars to shine.
With its top scorer, top defender and top goaltender each sitting out, the Helena Bighorns still managed to extend their winning streak to 16 games with a less-than-exemplary 8-1 victory over the Butte Roughriders in NorPac action at the Helena Ice Arena on Thursday night.
“I was happy with the younger guys,” Helena coach Scott Cunningham said. “All those guys played hard and that’s the most important thing.”
Among the newcomers to shine on Thursday were Anthony Petruzelli (a goal and an assist in his third game), Damon Hollandsworth (two goals in his sixth game) and 15-year-old defenseman Clay Van Diest, a Helena High sophomore making his NorPac debut.
“It gives some of those guys an opportunity to play,” Cunningham said. “We’re pretty lucky to be in that situation.”
Helena (26-1, 52 points) stretched its lead in the America West Division to 14 points over Missoula and beat Butte for the 10th consecutive time, dating to Dec. 19, 2008. Still the first-place Bighorns struggled to put away the last-place Roughriders, leading just 2-1 until Matt Hedderly scored twice in the final three minutes of the second period to give Helena some breathing room.
“We couldn’t get things going in the first period,” said Hedderly, who scored his fourth goal of the season on a breakaway and then tipped in Christian Kramer’s shot from the point. “They came out hard and got us a little rattled.”
“I think we came in over-confident,” Hollandsworth said. “A lot of us were thinking of a big point night. I think we finally started coming together in late second and third period.”
The Roughriders (1-25, 2 points), coming off a 7-0 loss in Bozeman the previous night, stayed with the Bighorns for most of the first 35 minutes, holding their own in the faceoff circle, sustaining a forecheck and getting solid play from goaltender Dylon Snyder, who made 19 saves before being pulled in the first minute of the final period.
“Butte usually plays hard,” Cunningham said.
Rudy Pino extended his point streak to 20 games with a goal and an assist, overtaking Johnson for the team scoring lead.
Helena entered the game having given up just one powerplay goal in its last 93 times shorthanded. But with Adam Johnson, Nolan Grauer and Zack Maxwell all watching in street clothes, that streak ended on the Riders’ first powerplay chance when Nicholas Gomez knocked in a rebound past Helena goaltender Nic Wackerly. It was the first goal given up by Wackerly against Butte in 185 minutes this season. Wackerly finished with 19 saves to improve to 8-0. Ryan Sutliffe is expected to start against Bozeman tonight. Johnson, Grauer and Maxwell are also expected back in the lineup.
Hollandsworth, a 20-year-old forward who had 14 points in 10 playoff games for the Bighorns last spring, rejoined the team three weeks ago after completing a semester at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash. He added a pair of third-period goals.
“It was my last year and I got the itch to play again and Scott was willing to take me back,” Hollandsworth said.
Fittingly, Helena High sophomore Wyatt Winfield finished the scoring, using an aggressive forecheck to trap an unsuspecting Butte player behind his own net, steal the puck and slip it past Byron Berryhill with 3:38 remaining for his second tally of the season.
The Bighorns travel to Bozeman tonight and return home to face Billings on Saturday before the Christmas holiday break.