A frustrating regular season led to a strange finish. But now everything starts anew for the Helena Bighorns, who open the postseason Thursday night at the Helena Ice Arena.
The Bighorns, finishing sixth in the Frontier Division standings, will face No. 3 Gillette in a best-of-three playoff series. Game 1 is set to begin at 7:05 p.m. The second and, if necessary, third games will have the same start times in Wyoming on Friday and Saturday.
The winner will advance to next week’s semifinals, along with No. 1 Yellowstone (40-4-0-3) and No. 2 Great Falls (38-4-2-3) -- both with first-round byes -- and the winner of the Missoula (23-16-3-1) and Bozeman (24-21-2-0) series. That playoff best-of-three begins on Friday with Games 1 and, if necessary, 3 in Missoula.
Thursday’s game will be the first the Bighorns (15-31-1-0) have played since Feb. 25, an 8-2 win at Billings, and the first in the Capital City since a Feb. 17 loss to Bozeman. That’s because Glacier forfeited their two games last week against Helena, after doing the same the previous week in two scheduled games with Yellowstone.
“They’re looking pretty good,” coach Bob Richards said. “We’ve had two weeks of practice, so I think the guys are anxious to play. You can definitely tell there’s that anxiousness to play.
“Even though we didn’t get any games in last weekend, the good thing is I think it broke up the routine a little bit. Postseason is here, and guys seem to be in a better mood, just having a little more fun and not just going through the motions.”
If the Bighorns hope to advance, they will need to solve their season-long offensive struggle.
The team’s top scorer is Bradley Estrada, who ranks 79th in the NA3HL with 51 points. He’s got 32 goals and 19 assists this season for Helena. Past that, though, the team simply doesn’t have consistent scorers. John Heddle has 23 goals this season and 21 assists, but injuries have kept him off the ice since late February. That leaves rookie Ben Kottmeier as the second-leading active scorer with 14 goals and 12 assists. Adam Apangalook has come on lately, and has 11 goals and 15 assists.
The offense has been so anemic, in fact, that there isn’t a single player on the roster in the positive on the plus-minus. Keepers Alex Kruger and Nicholas Battaglia lead that category at an even 0.
“When we have scored three or more goals in a game, we’ve done pretty well,” Richards said. “In a couple losses, especially against the better teams, we’re only scoring one or two goals. Especially with the way our team is made up this year, we can’t give up 55 shots a game and only score one goal. It doesn’t work that way. I mean, I’d rather only give up 35 shots a game. But if we’re gonna get into that type of a game, we need to score.
“It really comes down to the fact that we have gotten chances to score, but we haven’t capitalized on those chances.”
Defense, too, has been a struggle, and the Bighorns haven’t been able to keep opposing teams out of their end of the ice. That’s led to the team’s top goalie, Battaglia, facing a shooting gallery nightly. He’s taken on an incredible 1,146 shots this season -- the fourth highest total in the entire league -- but still finds himself just outside of the Top 50 with a 4.28 goals-against average and a save percentage of .914, stopping all but 99 shots.
Despite the extended work, the rookie has kept the Bighorns in many games, but too many times hasn’t had more than one or two goals scored in support.
“He’s been great, especially in the second half -- I would say since the beginning of December,” Richards said. “Nic is an exceptionally hard worker and he’s exceptionally competitive. He works hard every day, always asking for extra shots and time with the goalie coach. He’s so driven.
“And he’s gonna need to be good -- he knows that and the guys know that. But the good thing about the playoffs is we’re all going in there with a 0-0 record.”
In six games against the Wild this season -- all losses -- Helena scored a pair of goals four times. The Bighorns scored once in the series opener, and managed three in their final meeting. All told, Gillette (35-11-1-0) has outscored the Bighorns 32-12.
Riley Holwegner leads the Wild offense with 73 points, coming on 32 goals and 41 assists. The team has two other 30-goal scorers as well in Nick Stockert (32) and Cade Boreing (30), and Kyle Truax is an assist machine, with 24 goals and 45 helpers for 69 points.
The netminding is solid, with keepers Robbie Brennan and Landon Anderson, both rookies, combining for a 3.00 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Both Wild goalies are good, but haven’t been dominant. So there is certainly hope, and there have been games where the Helena offense has gotten on track and on fire. But a win will require the Bighorns generating good, sustained offense and ramping up what too often is a too-small shot total.
“Turnovers in our end are gonna prove costly,” Richards said. “So that’s what we’ve worked on a lot coming into this series is being more responsible on our end, knowing when it’s time to make the play and when it’s time to just clear it out of our end. They’re gonna score -- but if we limit those chances, we can make it a good series.
“We actually match up, even though we haven’t beaten them, we’ve played them well. And because of injuries or suspensions, we’ve also not played them with a full lineup this year, so that’s been the message. It doesn’t matter what happened in the regular season -- we’re a better team than we were the last time we played them. We’ve shown this year, when we show up and compete, it’s gonna be a great game.”