Thursday was a night that will be long remembered by Helena hockey fans.
It was also one, however, that Helena’s hockey team would like to forget.
Unable to both generate sustained offense and slow down the opposition’s attack, the Capital City squad suffered a 4-0 shutout at the hands of the visiting Great Falls Americans. Making the defeat sting just that much more, the blanking came on a night when Helena players swapped their Bighorn jerseys for a throwback Ice Pirate sweater, recognizing the city’s first hockey team.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Helena goalie Nicholas Battaglia said. “The fans were very loud and very supportive. We saw some old Ice Pirate faces that I personally haven’t seen here all year. Saw some old jackets with buttons on them … it was an awesome crowd -- you wish you could have this type of crowd every night. But this was a special night that deserved a special crowd, and it was.”
It was another special performance by the netminder, despite the loss.
A night after facing 57 shots on the road in Great Falls, Battaglia was back between the pipes on Friday. While his record will reflect another defeat, it will also reflect him saving 67 of 71 shots faced by a relentless American attack.
For the weekend, that gives him 118 saves on 128 shots, a save percentage of 92.2 percent.
It was the ninth straight loss for Helena (11-27-1-0), while Great Falls (31-3-2-3) continues to battle Yellowstone for the top spot in the NA3HL Frontier Division standings.
The teams skated through a scoreless, penalty-free first period on Friday, but Great Falls got untracked in the second.
The first goal to slip through was on a deceptively quick shot that snuck through five-hole on Battaglia at 7:41. Then, at 13:10, Tanner Congdon punched in a goal on the power play. Brendan Jester did the same five minutes later, and Great Falls had a three-goal lead after two.
In the third period, the Ice Pirates finally began to generate a bit of offense, and made Nick Nast work a bit. But they were never able to sneak one past, despite a few close calls.
Great Falls did, though, tack on one more, Jester snapping one high as Battaglia scrambled down low.
Yellowstone and Great Falls are running away from the rest of the pack, with Gillette, Missoula and Bozeman bunched up behind them. All five of those teams have already locked up a playoff spot, but there’s one left to hand out.
Despite their struggles, the Bighorns are well ahead of the league’s bottom two teams, four-win Billings and one-win Glacier. But the season doesn’t end until mid-March, so there’s still plenty of time for either of those teams to catch fire.
One of them, Billings, will be the next to face off against the Bighorns, as the Bulls travel to the Helena Ice Arena on Friday. Then the Americans come back to the barn, as the two rivals square off again the following night.
“You can’t hang your head; you’ve gotta just keep plugging away,” Battaglia said. “We’re back on the ice again within the next two days, and then we’re on the ice every day until our next game.
“We work hard. It’s hard when you’re not winning, but you just have to keep working. It’s a long season, and it looks like we’re gonna make the playoffs, so we’ve gotta be ready for that regardless of how the season’s going right now.”