First-place Bighorns blast Bozeman for fifth straight victory

The Helena Bighorns figured their game with Bozeman to be a battle.

But before the Capital City’s Junior A hockey team’s first penalty had even been erased — an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Dalton Bowles held over from the previous night’s win over Butte — the Bighorns had already gained much of the control of the game.

Helena scored six unanswered goals in the first period and forward Cody Hess picked up his second hat trick in three games as the Bighorns stomped the rival Icedogs 11-1 on Saturday night.

“We came out strong, the coach gave us a good pep talk and told us to play as a team and play with heart,” said Hess, who had three goals against Yellowstone on Sunday.

A big reason for the Bighorns’ success was a bit of special teams play that has dramatically improved since the start of the season.

The Bighorns scored their first two goals on power plays — the first an incredible wrist shot by Rudy Pino as he crossed into the zone and the second when Hess forced the puck in off starting goalie Jake Hebda’s right shin pad — by the 9:50 mark.

Helena would end with four power-play goals on seven chances and even scored its last goal of the night short-handed.

The Bighorns’ penalty kill squad, meanwhile, has killed off 53 consecutive penalties, dating back to Oct. 30 in a 4-3 win over Yellowstone.

“In this league, at this level, special teams is such a huge part of the game,” Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham said. “We’ve been working hard in practice on our power play and our penalty kill.

“We weren’t strong in those areas at the start of the year, but we worked hard in practice and our guys have learned the systems and it’s paid off for us.”

Already down 2-0, Bozeman got a good idea just how rough the night would be when Icedogs forward Dustin Simmons knocked a blind centering pass by Helena’s Michael Sullivan into his own net.

The own-goal gave Helena a 3-0 lead with 7:37 left in the period and with Nic Wackerly in net — substituting in for an injured Ryan Sutliffe — the Bighorns rolled from there.

“There’s no doubt that Bozeman’s a great team, well-coached team, but for whatever reason they just didn’t have a great game,” Cunningham said. “They got down early and it was kind of a snowball effect. You don’t get too many games like that against Bozeman.”

Wackerly finished with 20 saves while Hebda finished with 13 before being pulled for Matthew Bloss to start the second period. Bloss had 24 saves by the end.

Pino finished with two goals on the night while Taylor Laneville, David Smith and Ty Schindler all tallied scores. Michael Wall scored the final two goals of the game, including the short-handed one — a slapshot from just inside the blue line thanks to a horrible clear by Bozeman’s defense.

The Bighorns (15-1, 30 points) run their win streak to five straight games and remain in first place in the NorPac America West Division. The Icedogs (5-11, 10 points), perennial contenders for the Cascade Cup crown, struggle to get their season going right as it hits the one-third mark.

“It was a little awkward, a little bit of a shock. You come into tonight preparing for a great game, and give a battle. We still battled and we still fought hard. It was a lot of fun.”