By JEFF WINDMUELLER Independent Record | Posted: Sunday, March 14, 201
The game might have lasted 20 minutes longer than the night before, but the nearly sold-out crowd at the Helena Ice Arena was willing to wait around.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock in a matchup decided early then slowed by penalty after penalty, the Helena Bighorns couldn’t contain themselves much longer.
When the final horn blew, the program well-versed in winning had the celebration down to a T. The reigning Cascade Cup champions finished off their third straight title with a 7-1 win over the Seattle Totems on Saturday, leaping the boards and mobbing goalie Ryan Sutliffe, then taking their turns kissing the cup for all their fans to see.
“By the end of the third period we were kind of getting antsy to jump off the bench and throw our gloves and helmets,” said Bighorns captain Zack Maxwell, who celebrated the last three championships. “Each year is different. Each year it gets better and better, so I think this is the best one so far.”
Recent addition Gehrett Sargis scored a pair of goals Saturday and cemented himself on the program with a standout series. But for him, the feeling of holding the trophy was the most important.
“This is my first championship,” said the late acquisition from the NAHL’s Janesville Jets of Wisconsin. “I haven’t been on a winning team.
“I haven’t won in a long time, so it was definitely an experience. Definitely. I’ll always remember it.”
A long year, tough three weeks of playoffs and a bruising battle with Seattle will make sure of it.
The Bighorns finished the season at 52-7 (9-2 playoffs), outlasted Yellowstone in five games for the America West Division title, then survived one final torrid affair with Seattle, going back-and-forth with the Totems for a grand total of 31 penalties.
Three years in a row the two squads faced off for the Northern Pacific Hockey League’s top crown. And all three years the Bighorns have walked away the victors.
For Helena head coach Scott Cunningham, this was title No. 5. But that didn’t change its significance.
“The best part about winning is watching the reaction of players who haven’t won before,” Cunningham said. “We talked about it in the locker room in the second period.
“All those guys that we added late, there were reasons for it. We needed to get better and we did get better.”
Sargis was certainly one of them. He kicked off the big night, puckhandling around three defenders before ripping a wrist shot over the glove of Seattle goalie Anthony Chimenti, giving the Bighorns a 1-0 lead just two minutes in.
But after Seattle’s Jake Rademacher scored on a power play just after the 10-minute mark, Helena knew it wasn’t finished.
Damon Hollandsworth was called for board checking and Kjell Sherman a 10-minute misconduct for spearing Maxwell, which would only light the fuse to a powder keg.
The Bighorns decided to finally explode with a barrage of shots that gave them two goals in the final 4:31 of the period.
Helena local, Michael Sullivan redirected a slapshot from Gene Constantine to take the lead, and Jack Kippen — who had infuriated the Totems throughout the series with his aggressive play but had yet to score — backhanded a shot in before double fist-pumping the air in celebration.
From that point on, the two teams learned to play with a man down — often on a 4-on-4, and once even on a 4-on-3.
Sargis added his second goal in the second period and Cody Hess tipped in a shot that had trickled through Chimenti’s five-hole to make it 5-1 just 28 seconds into the final period.
After that, a couple of power-play goals made their way into the net, first by Nolan Grauer then Adam Johnson, as Seattle simply fell apart.
Nelson Aamodt was penalized after attacking Kyle Mills and even punching him when he lay on the ice, garnering an ejection, and the Bighorns took advantage for both of their goals.
“We’ve just got to look past that and keep going and do what we do,” Maxwell said.
The Bighorns have plenty to look toward to now.
They will head to nationals in Massachussetts beginning March 26, but first get a chance to rest.
“We’ll take a couple of days off and get back going,” Cunningham said. “Right now, we need rest, we’re banged up.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, might need a little longer to warm up after receiving one more ceremonial bucket of water over the head.