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Helena Bighorns take final AWHL title; NA3HL awaits in 2015

03/27/2014, 6:00pm EDT
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

The Helena Bighorns will try to extend their championship streak to eight straight seasons — and a third league — in the 2014-15 season.

The Bighorns completed a three-game sweep of the American West Hockey League’s championship series Friday night. The win came just hours after it was announced that the league’s seven teams would join the North American 3 Hockey League next season.

Helena won all three titles since the AWHL resumed play in the 2011-12 season. The Bighorns also won Cascade Cup championships in the previous four seasons as members of the Northern Pacific Hockey League.

The Bighorns ended the season on a 137:32 unscored-upon streak that culminated in a title-clinching 4-0 victory over the Great Falls Americans.

Helena is headed back to the Toyota-USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships, where it won the title in 2011 and finished third each of the past two years. This year’s tournament is April 3-7 in Simsbury, Conn.

Dylan Webster and Damon Hanson scored six points each and Helena allowed only four goals in six playoff games while improving to 52-1-1 combined for the AWHL regular season and playoffs. Austin Brihn made 18 saves in the clinching shutout.

The addition of Helena, Great Falls, the Billings Bulls, Bozeman IceDogs, Gillette Wild, Glacier Nationals (from Whitefish, Mont.) and Yellowstone Quake (from Cody, Wyo.) from the AWHL as the new Frontier Division will increase the NA3HL membership to 28 teams for the 2014-15 season. The changes are pending formal approval by USA Hockey in June at the Annual Congress as part of the junior recertification process.

“What a great opportunity it is for both the NA3HL and the AWHL to join forces as proud members of USA Hockey in step with creating the best Tier III junior property in the country,” NA3HL president and NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said in a story on the league website.

The NA3HL’s North Iowa Bulls are the defending Tier III national champions.

MORE TITLES: The Marquette Royales won the Minnesota Junior Hockey League’s Bush Cup and the Boston Junior Bandits won the Metropolitan League’s Keegan Cup.

In the Minnesota League, Jeff Salzbrunn scored on an assist from Lane King four minutes into overtime to lift the first-year Royales to a 3-2 championship game victory over the Dells Ducks. The Royales made it to the final by beating the Hudson Crusaders in three games in the semifinals. The Ducks swept the Illiana Blackbirds.

The teams traded overtime game-winners in the first two games. Marquette’s Dallas McLaughlin, who had a hat trick in a Game 2 loss, scored five goals in the Royales’ 6-4 win in the deciding game.

The two teams, who each won regular-season division titles, advance to Tier III nationals.

The Junior Bandits won an all-Boston Metro final 4-2 over the Junior Rangers. The Junior Bandits went 38-1-3 in the regular season and 7-0 in the playoffs. Mike Taormina was named playoff MVP.

The Junior Bandits reached the final by winning three games in a round robin among division playoff champions: 4-1 over the New Jersey Avalanche, 4-3 over the Boston Junior Rangers and 2-1 over the Richmond Generals. Cody Braga had a hat trick against New Jersey and had the empty-net goal to clinch the final.

The Junior Bandits earned a spot at Tier III nationals. The Junior Rangers will play the Eastern League runner-up for a berth.

PLAYOFF ROUNDUP: The Northern Cyclones kept their championship hopes alive through a triple-overtime game Sunday night, then won again on Tuesday to extend the first Eastern Hockey League championship series to a fifth and deciding game Thursday night.

The New Hampshire Junior Monarchs won the first two games of the series and carried a 3-2 lead into the third period of the third game. Northern defenseman Grant Gallo forced overtime in Game 3 with a power-play goal 2:47 into the third. The game then remained tied through more than 80 shots and nearly 59 minutes until Will Norris broke the tie at 1:49 of the third overtime. Evan Morelli made 74 saves in the win. Jake Theut had 64 saves in the loss.

The Cyclones then rolled to a 6-1 win Tuesday.

The defending champion North Iowa Bulls, Dallas Junior Stars, Flint Junior Generals and St. Louis Junior Blues advanced to the NA3HL’s Silver Cup Championship Thursday through Sunday in Geneva, Ill.

Following a three-game round robin, the top two teams will play for the title and both will advance to nationals.

Blake McIntyre’s second goal, in overtime, lifted Dallas over the Topeka Capitals 4-3 in the third game of their series.

St. Louis also needed three games against the Peoria Mustangs, and North Iowa needed three against the Granite City Lumberjacks. The Flint Junior Generals swept the Cleveland Lumberjacks.

NUMBER ONE: The Fairbanks Ice Dogs defeated the Kenai River Brown Bears 3-2 in a shootout Friday to clinch the overall North American Hockey League regular-season title and home ice throughout the Robertson Cup playoffs. Fairbanks is 43-14-1.

The Michigan Warriors and Janesville Jets clinched spots in the Robertson Cup playoffs.

COLLEGE COMMITMENTS: Chris Buchanan, a defenseman with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, has committed to play at Bentley University. The 19-year-old from San Jose, Calif. is in his second season with Fargo after playing one season with the Alaska Avalanche of the North American Hockey League.

Topeka RoadRunners forward Jake Kamrass committed to UMass-Lowell. The 20-year-old from Norcross, Ga., who is second on the NAHL team in scoring with 56 points in 58 games, will join his older brother, Zach, at UMass-Lowell.

QUICK STRIKES: Brian Pinho of the Indiana Ice needed just 6:23 of the second period to produce a natural hat trick in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Youngstown Phantoms, giving the Washington Capitals’ draft pick 22 points in the last 14 USHL games.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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