Bighorns Capture Sixth Straight Division Championship

By MARK VINSON Independent Record | Posted: Monday, March 8, 2010

Pushed to the brink of elimination in their Cascade Cup Playoff series against Yellowstone, the Helena Bighorns dug deep and found the material that has made them champions before.

Cody Hess and Gehrett Sargis scored goals 69 seconds apart in the second period and goaltender Ryan Sutliffe closed the door with a masterful third as the Bighorns defeated the Quake 5-2 in the fifth and decisive game of their NorPac America West Division championship series on Sunday night before a noisy crowd of 862 at the Helena Ice Arena.

“They wanted it more than (Yellowstone) did,” said Bighorns coach Scott Cunningham, whose team advances to face Pacific Division champion Seattle in the Cascade Cup final starting Thursday in Helena.

The Bighorns, who have won the past two Cascade Cups and four of the last five, looked nothing like a championship team in a 5-0 loss in Game 3 of the series on Friday that left them one miscue away from elimination. But the team responded with a 4-2 victory on Saturday and then had to rally from a 2-1 deficit on Sunday to advance.

“It just showed what a kind of a team we are tonight,” said captain Zack Maxwell, whose empty-net goal with 1:16 remaining sealed the outcome.

Chris Rinaldi scored twice for Yellowstone, giving him six goals and nine points in the five-game series. But after Rinaldi put Yellowstone ahead on a power-play tally early in the second period, the Bighorns took control of the contest.

Hess tied the score just six seconds past the game’s midway point when he took a beautiful cross-ice pass from Nolan Grauer and beat Quake goalie Alex Larson to send the arena into a frenzy.

With the crowd still buzzing, Sargis gave Helena the lead for good with 8:45 left in the second period off a pass from Patrick Love.

“He (Larson) had his stick out and I saw an opening and put it top shelf,” said Sargis, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Sunday with a goal and an assist.

Sutliffe, a 20-year-old veteran of two title teams, gave up the two goals early, but amply protected the lead, stopping the final 12 shots he faced.

“I just kept thinking to myself ‘I’m not going to let this be my last junior game’, ” said Sutliffe, who stopped 32 of the last 36 shots he faced in the series after being pulled in the third period of the Game 3 debacle.

Damon Hollandsworth scored just 1:09 into the final period to give Helena a two-goal margin, which proved to be more than enough.

“Our second periods have been up-and-down,” Cunningham said. “We needed to have a good second period and we did.”

Cunningham’s teams have normally been built around solid defense and goaltending and Sunday’s third period was a textbook example. Yellowstone managed just six shots on goal and no real scoring chances.

“That’s definitely been the key to our success over the years, playing real well in our own zone and taking care of business,” Cunningham said. “Keeping everything to the outside and limiting their opportunties.”

Helena, which amassed a 48-18 shot advantage, scored first when Gene Constantine batted in his own rebound past Larson with 5:43 left in the first. Despite being outshot 18-5 in the period, the Quake salvaged a tie when Rinaldi took a pass from Matthew Schulz and beat Sutliffe with just 14 seconds showing on the clock.

Rinaldi’s power-play goal gave Yellowstone a 2-1 advantage, but that was the last time the Quake would lead.

“It was the most fun game of my life,” said 20-year-old, three-year veteran Rudi Pino, who had one assist in the game. “From the drop of the puck, we believed we could win it and we came out and got it done.”