The highly anticipated showdown between the NorPac’s top two teams turned into a one-sided affair on Thursday as the Helena Bighorns beat up on the Seattle Totems 8-1 in the first game of the Cascade Cup finals.
Cody Hess, Rudi Pino and Gehrett Sargis scored two goals apiece for the America West Division champion Bighorns and Helena jumped to a 3-0 start early, getting the trio of goals in a 1-minute, 24-second span in the first period before coasting through much of the game.
“I expected Seattle to be a little bit sluggish,” said Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham, who has led his charges to the last two Cascade Cup championships. “They left about 4 or 5 p.m. and traveled by bus overnight without much sleep.
“We’ve got to expect a much harder game from Seattle tomorrow.”
The two teams will face off again tonight at 7:30 in the Helena Ice Arena. The Bighorns will maintain home ice throughout the playoffs, though they will be wearing white tonight as Seattle gets home-ice advantage and the last shift for each faceoff.
The Bighorns, coming off a five-game series with Yellowstone to collect the America West Division title on Sunday, had an obvious jump on the Pacific Division champions, who came off a three-game sweep of rival Eugene last week.
Helena took a quick lead when Nolan Grauer scored on a rebound that bounced off starting goalie Anthony Chimenti’s shin pad and slipped between the feet of Grauer’s linemate Damon Hollandsworth. Grauer picked up the puck in front and buried it with 17:12 on the clock.
Just nine seconds later, Hess scored his first goal of the game when he put away a shot early off a face-off in the Totem’s zone, putting it five-hole on Chimenti.
After Kevin Clark scored from a blue-line shot with 15:48 left in the period, Chimenti was replaced by former Bighorns backup Kevin Maile.
Chimenti finished with just two saves on five shots while Maile would end the game with 36 saves on 41 shots.
“The first five minutes of the first period, we took it to them,” Hess said. “After we got up, though, we took it easy, which has kind of been a downfall for us.”
The Bighorns didn’t score for the rest of the period and Seattle captain Chris Beede would snap a wristshot over the shoulder of Helena goalie Ryan Sutliffe to make it 3-1 just 3:09 into the second period.
The wake-up call gave the Bighorns some renewed strength and Pino responded by stealing the puck right off the stick of Maile, who tried to deke the forward to clear the crease. Pino slipped it right into the net for his first goal of the game and a 4-1 advantage.
With momentum on the Bighorns side, Helena’s penalty kill unit — which turned away all four power-play opportunities for the Totems — picked up a short-handed goal, thanks to a nice move from Gene Constantine to break into the zone, resulting in Hess’ second score of the night.
Pino started off the third period with his last goal while Sargis ended the game with back-to-back power-play scores on a squad that went 2-for-4 with a man advantage.
The Bighorns defense, meanwhile, held the Totems to 20 shots, 19 of them turned away by Sutliffe.
Helena’s goalie had little trouble stopping the first shot on each attempt, but received a little help from his defense after that. On several occasions the Totems looked at an open net after the rebound, but a Bighorn cleared the puck or slid to block the shot.
Forward Adam Johnson was even penalized when he dove across the crease and slashed Seattle’s Stormy Knight, causing him to miss the open net.
“You have to gut up and do what you’ve got to do,” Hess said. “(Sutliffe) played great in net.
“When he’s back there, we know he’s someone we can rely on.”
NOTES: Linesman Gordon Klepec had a rough night, injuring a knee when Constantine rammed a Seattle forward into him in the second period, then taking a wrist shot square in the back in the third period … Chimenti had only allowed eight goals in six games with two shutouts heading into Thursday’s match … Pino remains the leading points scorer in the playoffs, extending his total to 19 with six goals and 13 assists.