To truly understand the juggernaut the Helena Bighorns have become, consider the plight of their opponent on Friday night — the Missoula Maulers.
The Maulers came to the Helena Ice Arena with eight wins, put a season-high 35 shots on a Helena goaltender, maintained puck possession in the offensive zone for extended periods of time and got 48 saves from goalie Andy DiCristofaro. And yet the Maulers still suffered a 5-2 defeat in the NorPac contest before 450 fans.
“It was a tough game,” said Helena’s Trevor Tracy, who had two assists. “We know how to battle when it’s close.”
The Bighorns (11-0, 22 points) extended their lead in the America West Division to six points in an effort that saw them get goals from five different players, 33 saves from goalie Pat Wenzell and kill off all six penalties against them.
“We did a lot of things well,” Helena coach Scott Cunningham admitted.
Cunningham was less than thrilled about his team’s play in its defensive zone, however.
“We still have plenty of things to work on,” he said. “We need to keep things simple, work hard in our zone.”
Helena never trailed after Ryan Doner scored his team-leading 18th goal on a breakaway late in the first period for a 1-0 lead. Doner would miss the final two periods after getting a spearing penalty and game misconduct at the end of the first period. But Helena hardly missed a beat.
The Bighorns made it 2-0 when Tracy found hometown hero Michael Sullivan with a beautiful pass in the high slot and Sullivan fired a bullet past DiCristafaro for his 10th goal of the season.
Missoula got within 2-1 when Chris Pontello scored 36 seconds later.
Helena was 2 for 6 on the power play, including the back-breaker midway through the second period. Cunningham had noticed a weakness in Missoula’s penalty killing unit and moved forward Nolan Grauer to the right point opposite captain Zack Maxwell. Maxwell passed the puck to Grauer, who found Cody Hess with a perfect pass in the slot. Hess’ shot through the five hole never gave DiCristafaro a chance.
“We’ve been working on that, to take away a bit of Missoula’s penalty kill,” Cunningham said.
Maxwell got his fourth goal of the season — and third in two nights — on a wicked slapshot from the point to make it 4-1 after two periods.
“I don’t expect perfect hockey, but I expect us to compete 110 percent every game,” Cunningham said.
Missoula (8-4, 16 points) closed within 4-2 on Cody Skilling’s goal at 8:17 of the third, but even then it seemed it would take a minor miracle for the Maulers to pull off the comeback.
“No one put their heads down,” said Tracy, who had two assists. “We just kept working.”
Taylor Laneville put the final nail in the coffin, banging home a rebound at the midway point of the final period to make it 5-2.