Quake end regular season on top
By LEW FREEDMAN Mar 8, 2017 0
The moment the Yellowstone Quake put the stake in the heart of their stalker, the bench emptied and rushed to goalie Nick Ottenbacher for a group, pig-pile hug.
Culminating a half-year-quest, the Quake bested the Great Falls Americans, 8-2, Friday night at Riley Arena and claimed the regular-season North American Tier III junior hockey Frontier Division crown.
“You’re just ecstatic,” Ottenbacher said. “‘Yea! We did it.’ It was six months of hard work.”
Capping the greatest regular season in team history, the Quake went wire-to-wire in first place, yet could never shake Great Falls.
Entering the last two games, Yellowstone led the standings by two points. It was must-win for Great Falls Friday to tie and to make it winner-take-all on Saturday.
But the pennant race ended abruptly Friday with Quake domination.
Even though Saturday’s game was unnecessary, it had to be played and Great Falls won 6-3.
The Quake concluded the regular season 40-4-0-3 and Great Falls went 38-4-2-3. Both teams earned first-round byes in the six-team divisional playoffs.
Based on four previous meetings this season, with each team winning twice, these figured to be one-goal games. No one expected such a final margin. 8-2?
“No, no,” said Quake coach Ryan Theros, though he hoped. “I lay awake until 4 a.m. thinking, ‘Is it going to be overtime? Or is it going to be this?’”
“This” was two goals in the first period, three in the second and three in the third.
Leading scorer Reed Kelly notched both first-period goals (and added two assists). The first goal came on a power play at 8:04. The second came on an improbable shot, with Kelly firing the puck from the left side, past two defensemen and to the left of Americans’ goalie Nick Nast. It was Kelly’s 33rd goal of the year.
It was remarked to Theros it must be nice having Reed Kelly on his team.
“Always,” he said, harkening back to Kelly’s acquisition last season. “That was the best trade I ever made. He’s good at finding those lanes. He’s very precise with his shot.”
After Nast allowed four goals, Great Falls coach Jeff Heimel replaced him with back-up Kyler Ayers. The Quake kept hammering.
“I expected it to be closer,” said forward Max Meyer, who collected two assists. “We got the fast start and it carried the rest of the game. That was the most fun I had in a game all year.”
Tough defense, solid goal-tending and explosive scoring are a recipe for victory. Part of the success was stopping Great Falls on eight of nine power plays.
“I thought we did a great job on the penalty kill,” defenseman Mason Stewart said. “When Otter stood on his head, I thought, ‘We’re taking this.’”
Other goals came from Matt Runyon, Max Doner (two), Curt Greenbush and Cole Stewart (two). Stewart’s third-period, unassisted goal may have eclipsed Kelly’s picture-perfect shot on the fan excitement meter.
Stewart faked two defensemen and the goalie in a head-long rush at the net.
“That was a pure blue-collar goal,” Theros said.
Stewart said his initial aim was modest, just getting the puck out of the Quake defensive zone. Being able to skate through the congestion surprised him.
“Somehow I kept the puck on my stick and went in,” Stewart said.
One person who had faith the Quake would lock down the title Friday was team president Bob Bole.
After the final buzzer he held an already-made-for-the occasion rolled-up banner suitable for rafter hanging.
“I plan ahead,” Bole said. “I gambled.”
Saturday night was the great anti-climax game. Kelly sat out with a right cheek injury after twice being hit with the puck.
Back-up goalie Brady Anderson did not receive nearly the focused defensive protection and Theros subbed Ottenbacher for him after he surrendered four goals.
Under the heading of everything going wrong, not even the Zamboni machine made it through unscathed, breaking down between the first and second period.
It is never a good sign when a vehicle is pulled over on the side of the road with the hood up. This mishap produced an inordinate delay.
“It was kind of a weird game,” Theros said. “It was tough for the guys to get up. I hate losing, but I can’t complain. We won 40 games.”
Next weekend the Gillette Wild, Missoula Junior Bruins, Bozeman Icedogs and Helena Bighorns fight it out in the first round of the playoffs.
Yellowstone and Great Falls will play the winners over the March 17 weekend. The championship series is set for the March 24 weekend with the winner advancing to the Silver Cup nationals.
Most expect the Quake and Americans to be the finals protagonists.
“I have a similar feeling,” Heimel said. “We have a lot of room for growth. We got taught a lesson (Friday night).”
The Quake aspire to win the division playoffs and the national title.
“We’re not done yet,” Theros said. “This was a stepping-stone. This year the guys want to win the Silver Cup.”