For the fourth time these playoffs, they played for Wyatt.
And, for the fourth time these playoffs, they won for Wyatt.
Just two weeks after the death of teammate Wyatt Winfield, the Helena Bighorns completed a series sweep of the Yellowstone Quake with a 10-2 blowout Friday at the Helena Ice Arena. The decisive victory gave the Bighorns the AWHL championship — their eighth league title overall.
Longtime coach Scott Cunningham said winning a championship never gets old. But this one means a little something more.
“This is probably the most memorable, just because of the accident,” he said. “It’s special. I think it would be hard to top this one.”
Winfield died after the truck he was driving rolled over on Lincoln Road, near the Marysville turnoff. That was 12:40 a.m. on Friday, March 15. That night, the Bighorns had a playoff game Missoula.
“It all started that Friday night, Game 3 against Missoula,” Cunningham said. “They just came together. I asked them if they wanted me to postpone, and they said they wanted to play. It’s just kind of taken off from there.”
In the series opener with the Quake, the Bighorns eked out a 1-0 win. Cunningham said, in that one, the team failed to create traffic in front of the net and were unable to make plays down low.
It was clear Friday that this was Helena’s focus — and it didn’t waste any time making that known. Just 10 seconds into the game, in fact, the crowd roared to life when a simple dump-in nearly found the net. Then, 30 seconds later, a shot hit the post.
Forward Damon Hanson got the ball rolling, though, when he intercepted a clearing attempt in the neutral zone. He turned, charged down ice and, after slipping past a defender, shot a quick wrister high to the glove side of Quake goalie Jared Schletty, lighting the lamp at 9:41.
Two minutes later, Parker Olson beat Schletty high to the stick side for another goal. After another two minutes ticked off the clock, Hanson struck again, grabbing a puck that caromed off the side board to center ice. Flipping the puck over the keeper’s shoulder, it was 3-0.
Coming out of the locker room for the second period, Yellowstone opted for a change in net.
It didn’t matter.
Rocco Yapello fared no better. Less that two minutes into his stint, Helena’s Chris Andre had the puck between the faceoff circles, his back to the goal. He spun and flipped the puck toward net, surprising the new keeper and beating him five-hole. It was 4-0 and the rout was on.
Yellowstone finally got on the board in the third period, scoring twice, but the Bighorns added another five of their own. The final goal of the night went to Hanson, who took a Nick Okada slapshot from the point. The shot deflected off Hanson’s left knee and into the net.
“It was a great shot, and I was just there,” he said with a smile. “Getting this, it feels great. But I just went out there and did my job. That’s all that’s ever asked of us.”
Keeper Alek Lazarski did his job, too, stopping 25 of the 27 shots that came his way.
“It’s been forever since I’ve won something,” he said. “It’s a great way to cap the year off. Words can’t describe what that feels like.”
Words were hard to come by for many of the players Friday when asked what this win meant. But, when they gathered at center ice after their trophy celebration, their intent, their thoughts, were clear.
Fifteen unified slaps of stick to ice.
Wyatt Winfield wore No. 15.
“This … this is really special,” Hanson said. “It’s an honor, to play this for him. He worked his tail off, day in and day out, for us. To do this for him, it’s a special thing.”
The team leaves Monday for the USA Hockey Tier III Junior Nationals in Rochester, Minnesota. Play begins Thursday.
“So we’re not done yet,” Hanson said. “We still have one more job to do.”
BIGHORNS 10, QUAKE 2
BIGHORNS WIN SERIES, 3-0
Yellowstone 0 0 2 – 2
Helena 3 2 5 – 10
First period: Helena – Damon Hanson , PP, (unassisted), 10:19; Parker Olson, PP, (Brandon Rumble), 13:18; Hanson (Dillon Mershon, Olson), 15:13
Second period: Helena – Chris Andre (unassisted), 1:51; Olson (Rumble, John Petersson), 19:05
Third period: Helena – Christian Axelsson (Petersson), 1:46; Jacob Wolter (Rumble), 3:07; Andre (Theo Campe, Nick Okada), 5:56; Ben Henne (Corbin Belling), 9:36; Hanson (Okada, Mershon), 12:34; Yellowstone – Brandon Busse, PP (Jimmy Tich), 0:19; Tich (Orri Haman), 10:01
Shots: Yellowstone 27, Helena 73
Saves: Yellowstone (Jared Schletty 26, Rocco Yapello 37) 63; Helena (Alek Lazarski) 25.