Any seeds that may have germinated concerning the Helena Bighorns’ vulnerability resulting from a pair of post-holiday defeats are now melting as rapidly as fresh-fallen snow on a balmy winter afternoon.
Ryan Sutliffe made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 11 th of his junior career as the Bighorns blanked the Yellowstone Quake 6-0 at the Helena Ice Arena on Saturday night for their fifth consecutive win.
“I thought Sutliffe played one of his best games,” Helena coach Scott Cunningham said. “It all started with Sutliffe and filtered up through the defense and then to the forwards.”
Showing no signs of fatigue after having played a night earlier in Billings, the 20-year-old netminder earned his league-best 21st win of the season. This one didn’t come without some highlight-reel saves.
“It means a lot to get it against this team,” Sutliffe said. “They’re fast and move the puck well.”
With Helena leading 2-0 early in the second period, Yellowstone’s leading scorer, Chris Rinaldi came face-to-face with Sutliffe on a breakway. Sutliffe came out of his crease to cut down Rinaldi’s angle, slipped momentarily, but was able to poke-check the puck away.
“I saw the puck and knew I could get there and got the puck before he did,” Sutliffe said.
Sutliffe’s best save of the night may have come in the dying minutes on a short-handed breakaway by Matthew Hackett.
“We never mention the shutout,” Helena’s Adam Johnson said.
Yellowstone (24-11, 48 points) came to Helena as the NorPac’s hottest team, winners of eight straight. But the Bighorns controlled the game with a ferocious forecheck, puck possession, aggressiveness and, of course, the play of Sutliffe.
The game featured four fights – Helena’s Ty Schindler and Yellowstone’s Alex Vazquez squared off twice, to the delight of crowd of 749 – and 102 minutes in penalties.
“I’m really proud of those guys,” Cunningham said. “They stood up when they needed to.”
Helena (33-3, 66 points) got first-period goals from Rudy Pino (his 32 nd) and Cody Hess (21 st), the latter coming when Zack Maxwell held the puck in the offensive zone at the blue line and fired a bullet that Yellowstone goalie Alex Steidler was able to stop, but unable to corral the rebound.
With Sutliffe frustrating the Quake at one end, Helena broke the game open with goals by Adam Johnson, Nolan Grauer and Alec Burks in the first 6:27 of the third period. Four of Helena’s six goals came on rebounds. Helena had a 31-21 shot advantage and killed off all six of Yellowstone’s power plays.
Nine different players recorded points for Helena, including newcomer AJ Chute, who capped the scoring with a third-period powerplay talley.
“We had every line going,” said Johnson, whose goal early in the third period extended the Bighorns’ lead to 3-0.
The two teams meet again next Friday.