Outside, Helena saw cold and wet.
Inside, Helena saw cold and Wild.
Friday night marked the season opener for the Helena Bighorns, who welcomed Gillette into their barn with a dominant, 6-3 win. It was a bit of delayed gratification for the Bighorns, who were eliminated from the postseason a year ago by the Wild.
Despite putting a young team on the ice, Helena was rarely rattled and took control of the tempo from the outset. The Wild was the more physical team in the first two periods, but Helena kept grinding – and shooting. The Bighorns finished with a 52-36 advantage in shots, including a big 20-8 advantage in the first period.
“I definitely think we had moments when we were playing really well,” coach Bob Richards said. “They were fired up. I liked how even in the third there, we’d talked about coming out and not letting off the gas, and we got a few goals. It got a little sloppy at times, but that’s to be expected at this time of year.”
Veteran Jarett Scheibel opened the scoring at 5:58 of the first period, and Hayden Sietz added a second goal at 17:07.
Gillette got back in it with a goal just 79 seconds into the second, but the Dylan Goulet -- in his first-ever Junior game -- found himself with a step on Braxton Rambo, the only defender between him and the net.
“I saw (Ben) Kottmeier flip it up, and I just was praying that it’d get through that defender,” said a beaming Goulet, named the No. 1 star of the game. “It came through, and I saw it and the shot just went in. I saw where it was gonna go, and it went there. I saw it hit the net and I was like, ‘Yeah!’ it was awesome.
“You know, honestly, it sounds cliché, but it’s surreal.”
A diving Rambo knocked Goulet off his skates and he watched the puck hit the back of the net as he slid, shoulder first, into the boards. He left the ice after a short celebration and had trainers look at the shoulder which, he said, was hurting and not allowing him to shoot.
With him in the locker room, Gillette scored an answer at 10:40 of the second to make it a one-goal game, 3-2.
But Goulet managed to get himself back on the ice and regain his shooting touch, scoring at 17:26 to again give the home team a two-goal cushion.
“For that second one, I just went to the net hard, shot it and came out with it,” he said. “Last year, this is the team that took them out of the playoffs. So in my first game, first season … this is big.”
Roberts had nothing but praise for his new forward.
“I like it because Dylan’s unique. He’s a 20-year-old rookie,” he said. “And he was recruited as a defenseman. But he’s got a great shot. He’s strong on his skates and we had a need up front, so we decided to try him up there. This was, literally, his fourth time on the ice as a forward. Obviously, he took to it well.
“He’s a Midwest kid – they know hockey there. He goes to the net and he shoots hard.”
Sietz scored early in the third, and a little more than a minute later, Kottmeier gave the Bighorns their sixth goal of the night. The Wild managed to tack on a power play goal with 4:20 to play, but it was far too little, far too late.
Veteran keeper Nick Battaglia earned the win, stopping 33 of the 36 shots he faced, fending off a furious push by the visitors in the final 10 minutes with the help of a strong defensive wall in front.
The teams will play again on Saturday before hitting the road for a pair of games next weekend in Great Falls.
And if Helena can maintain the level of play it showed in the opener, it may just leave town at 2-0 and with an offense that has left last year’s scoring struggles far behind.