When Alex Larson stepped off the team bus and found out that he would be the starting goaltender for the Yellowstone Quake Friday night, his emotions were decidedly mixed.
“We hate playing here,” Larson said, speaking about his arrival at the Helena Ice Arena. “The fans here are so rowdy, so loud.”
Larson did his best to silence the crowd, making 31 saves as the Quake handed the Helena Bighorns just their second home loss in 17 games this season, 5-3, in a NorPac contest.
It was the most goals that Helena had allowed in 26 games, since a 10-3 loss to the Quake in Cody, Wyo., on Oct. 31
“We got outworked,” said Helena coach Scott Cunningham. “We didn’t show up to play.”
Helena’s top-rated penalty kill allowed three power-play goals on five attempts and the Quake also added a short-handed tally.
Yellowstone (26-11, 52 points) beat the Bighorns (33-4, 66 points) for the second time in six meetings this season. This game looked nothing like Helena’s 6-0 victory over Yellowstone last Saturday. Yellowstone has won nine of its last 10 games to pull within two points of Missoula for second place in the America West Division.
“They came in here after losing 6-0 the other night and it didn’t slow them down at all,” Cunningham said.
Yellowstone jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 15 minutes on the strength of power-play goals by Alex Vasquez and Cory Sosnowksi and an even-strength tally by Matthew Schulz. It was the first time since the Oct. 31 loss that Helena had trailed by more than two goals.
“We showed a little panic, but we shouldn’t have,” Helena captain Zack Maxwell said.
“That was huge,” Larson said. “Our neutral zone trap is twice as good when we get the lead.”
Although Helena controlled the territorial battle and held a 34-28 shot advantage, many of the shots came from the perimeter. Larson was able to see the shots clearly and stop them with little difficulty.
“Our defense did a great job of keeping them out of the slot and to the perimeter,” Larson said.
One of the few occasions when the Bighorns did crash the net resulted in Adam Johnson’s first-period power-play tally. Helena got within one making it 3-2 late in the first when Cody Hess tipped in Kevin Clark’s shot from the point.
The Bighorns appeared poised to tie the game early in the second period, but what appeared to be a goal by Kyle Mills was disallowed when officials, in a tough call, declared that the net came off its posts before the puck crossed the goal line.
Ironically, Yellowstone’s Chris Rinaldi scored a shorthanded goal moments later when his shot got past Helena goaltender Ryan Sutliffe as the net also appeared to come of the posts prematurely. But Rinaldi’s goal stood and Yellowstone added another three minutes later on a power-play score by Schulz.
AJ Chute tried to spark a Bighorn rally with a goal less than five minutes into the final frame, but Larson stood tall and turned away 10 more Helena shots to seal the victory.
Now the Bighorns travel to Missoula (27-10, 54 points) to face a Maulers team that defeated them the past two meetings and is in second place in the America West Division.
“We just have to come prepared to work tomorrow night,” Maxwell said.
NOTES: Former Bighorns Desi Ritari and Chase Kimberling were traded to Bozeman for Tom Greene earlier this week.