Bighorns Advance to Second Round with Sweep of Billings

Adam Johnson wasn’t about to let Billings shut him down.

Entering into game 3 of the first round of NorPac playoffs Friday night with the Bulls, the Helena Bighorns’ leading scorer hadn’t had a goal as the Capital City squad walked away with the first two games on identical 4-2 wins.

By the third match up, Johnson and his crew were ready to show the hometown crowd what they could do.

Johnson started a seven-goal run that began the night and finished with a hat trick on the final score of the game as the Bighorns swept the Bulls with an 11-1 final in the Helena Ice Arena.

The Bighorns will head to Cody, Wyo., on Tuesday to face the Yellowstone Quake, who completed a sweep of their own over Missoula. The series will return to Helena for game three next Friday and games four and five if needed on Saturday and Sunday.

“When you play here, just to step on the ice, a lot of guys were saying that was the loudest we’ve heard it in a long time,” said Johnson, who played  before a crowd of 682. “It gives you goosebumps.

“We felt good in warm ups and we knew it was going to be a good night.”

Johnson had been held to just three assists over the first two playoff games, though he had a league-leading 45 goals heading into the postseason. With home-ice advantage and a plethora of penalties in the first meeting between the two teams, the Bulls had been able to silence Johnson and keep the incessant grinder scrambling in the corners of the rink.

By Friday night, he was ready to break out. It only took him 1:13 to get his first goal, a rebound of Nolan Grauer’s shot.

That kicked the snowball at the top of the hill as the Bighorns piled on one goal after another — seven by the end of the first period and four of them on power plays.

Johnson also scored the third when a slapshot from Rudi Pino was initially blocked, but bounced off the arena’s stiff boards left of Billings goalie Jake Mandin and to Johnson’s stick. All he had to do was put it away.

Helena head coach Scott Cunningham said one of the biggest differences was the return of Cody Hess to the line with Johnson and Nolan Grauer. During the first two games, Tyler Miller had been on the line.

“Miller’s young, he does a great job and he’s fearless, but Hess obviously has a little more offense in him,” Cunningham said. “I think that had a lot to do with it, I think being home in front of his crowd had a lot to do with it, too.”

Hess would finish with a goal as well and contribute three assists on the night.

Grauer followed up Johnson’s goal 1:14 later and Mandin was replaced by Andrew Sherman after stopping just six of the Bighorns’ first 10 shots. Sherman would end up with 30 saves on the night.

Billings’ Nicholas Scheafer broke Helena’s shutout at the start of the second period when he burned the Bighorns’ defense, then deked and put a shot over goalie Ryan Sutliffe’s glove.

Still, the prettiest goal of the night went to Helena’s Gehrett Sargis, who flipped a pass over the defense’s stick to Rudi Pino, then was on the receiving end of a one-timer to make it 10-1 with 12:58 left in the game.

Pino would score his third goal in three games while Sargis and Grauer finished with two. Taylor Laneville added the other for the Bighorns.

Johnson scored a power-play goal with a little over six minutes left to complete the hat trick.

Though taking a commanding lead early in the game, the Bighorns didn’t slow down as Billings picked up their speed and physicality. With Yellowstone on the horizon, the Bighorns weren’t ready to slow down.

“That’s kind of a bummer in a way,” Cunningham said. “Obviously, the game’s over pretty early. And, honestly, with this team this year we’ve got to keep going. We’ve gotten teams on the ropes and backed off when we should’ve gone for the knockout.”

NOTES: Sutliffe finished with 17 saves on the night as the Bighorns outshot their opponents 47-18…Pino and Zack Maxwell lead Helena after the first two games with eight points apiece…The Bighorns were 5 for 7 on the power play while Billings was 0 for 6.