By Rod Harwood, News Record sports writer
Wild coach Tom Winkler sat in the locker room at Spirit Hall Ice Arena late Saturday night, reflecting on what had just happened.
The junior hockey team had defeated Billings, Mont., 6-3 in the regular-season finale in front of 661 fans in Gillette. With the win, the tier III junior team improved to 23-23-2.
Winkler thought about it for a moment. Forty-eight games into its inaugural season, the first-year American West Hockey League expansion team had drawn even, going into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
“We’ve battled through a lot and the fact that we finished .500 is a great achievement,” he said. “I know people around the league that thought we’d be lucky to win 10 games. We used those types of comments as motivation.
“It’s a real tribute to the kids that we are where we’re at.”
The Wild scored six goals from five different players, including a four-goal barrage in the first period, to beat the Bulls (26-17-5) for the second straight night.
Gillette won 4-3 on Friday night in Billings and finished strong with back-to-back wins against the No. 3 seed in the upcoming tournament.
Closing the gap
“We wanted to go into the playoffs playing well,” Winkler said. “We’ve had battles with these guys all year. We evened the series with them at 5-5 tonight and we have really closed the gap on the teams ahead of us.”
Gillette scored three goals on its power play, including Tyler Cavan’s second score of the night at 9:37 in the third period.
The Wild outshot the Bulls 15-8 in the four-goal first period, and Cavan scored from the crease to start it all off.
“The game we won tonight is amazing because it gives us momentum going into the playoffs,” said Cavan, who ranks 11th in the league in scoring. “If you don’t get your mental preparation just right, teams like Helena and Missoula are just going to walk over you.
“So it’s important to be playing with confidence. We go into the playoffs as the underdog, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Gillette opens the best-of-seven series Tuesday night with the top-seeded Maulers (41-6) in Missoula, Mont. They will play again on Wednesday, before returning to Gillette for three games March 16-18.
“It feels really good to beat somebody ahead of you in the standings and anytime you can go in on a winning streak it gives us tons of confidence,” said Wild goaltender Grant Friesen.
He made 28 saves in 31 shots on Saturday night. “We have to stay physical against Missoula.
“Anytime we stay physical, like we did tonight, we can compete with any team in the league.”
Taylor Motsinger, the third-leading scorer in the AWHL with 36 goals and 33 assists, missed Saturday night’s win.
The 5-foot-9 forward from Highlands Ranch, Colo., was attending his sister’s wedding.
But the Wild still produced. Cavan had two goals. Casey Moneer, Matt Rose, Stanislav Izvekov and Adam Pecht each scored one each.
On a roll
The Wild offense will be going against a quality goaltender in Missoula’s Brandon Newsome.
The 6-foot, 165-pounder from Allen Park, Mich., is the third-ranked goaltender in the league and is 18-2 with three shutouts.
“You always want to go into the playoffs having won your last game,” Winkler said.
“It’s a different mindset. Our power play has gotten better. I’m still sore with the penalties we take.
“When you get into the playoffs, you won’t win with undisciplined penalties.
“You’re not going to win if you’re killing six to eight minutes in penalties a period. We have to tighten up on that.”