BILLINGS — The Helena Bighorns are halfway to the championship series.
Helena finds itself with a two-game advantage after a 5-1 victory over Billings at Centennial Ice Arena on Wednesday in Game 2 of their best-of-7 first-round AWHL playoff series. Helena also defeated the Bulls by the same score a night earlier in Game 1.
And much like in the series opener, Billings suffered through a costly lull. Only this time it came in the first period, where the Bighorns took a four-goal lead while out-shooting the Bulls 17-4.
“We just happened to do it in the first period tonight instead of the third,” said Bulls coach Chris Hartly, whose team trailed 2-1 going into the third period of Game 1 before giving up three goals. “We’ve got to come out and execute for a full 60 minutes.”
The Bighorns held a 2-0 lead with just 4 minutes gone in the first period after Cody Blom and Alex DeWitz scored back-to-back. But Helena took command with consecutive power-play goals from Ben Henne and Devin Smith in a 1:14 span near the end of the first.
Henne’s goal was a scrappy, 5-on-3 marker scored directly in front of Bulls goalie Nic Wackerly. Smith’s was chipped up above Wackerly’s right shoulder, where it fluttered softly behind the goal line.
DeWitz scored another goal for Helena in the second period, giving him three goals in the series.
The Bulls got on the board with only 28 seconds remaining in the third when Sawyer Jacobson scored on a two-on-one rush with Paul Hoffman. It was the only bright spot Billings had against Helena goalie Trey Flesch, who made 25 saves.
Hartly said Jacobson’s goal is something for his team to build on for Game 3, which is Friday night in Helena. The Bighorns can take the penultimate step toward a series sweep with a victory.
“It gives us a lift,” Hartly said. “We focused on that for the third period. The important thing for us was to establish some pressure and win that final 20 minutes.”
After Game 3, Helena will travel to Billings for Game 4 on Saturday at Centennial Ice Arena. Faceoff is at 7:30 p.m.
On the other side of the bracket, Missoula owns a 2-0 series lead against Gillette after topping the Wild 5-4 in overtime Wednesday night.
Helena 4 1 0 — 5
Billings 0 0 1 — 1
First Period — 1, Helena, Cody Blom (Logan Hawgood, Drew Ingram) 3:41; 2, Helena, Alex DeWitz (Danny Fazio) 3:56; 3, Helena, Ben Henne (power play) (DeWitz, Balasz Goz) 16:06; 4, Helena, Devin Smith (power play) (Trevor Tracy, Blom) 17:20.
Second Period — 5, Helena, DeWitz (Fazio, Goz) 8:20.
Third Period — 6, Billings, Sawyer Jacobson (Paul Hoffman) 19:31.
Shots on goal — Helena 17-9-18—44, Billings 4-12-10—26.
Power plays — Helena 2 of 10, Billings 0 of 6.
Goalies — Helena, Trey Flesch 26 shots, 25 saves. Billings, Nic Wackerly 44 shots, 39 saves.
Time — 2:31. A — 214.
Referees — A. Tait, Kyle Domin, Dan Jones.