Missoula Maulers Knock Out Gillette Wild

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Missoula Maulers knock out Gillette Wild

The Missoula Maulers saved their best for the last game of their American West Hockey League semifinal playoff series. Playing their most complete hockey of the postseason, the Maulers dominated from start to finish and closed out the series with Gillette with a 5-0 shutout in Game 6 before a spirited crowd of nearly 1,900 at Glacier Ice Rink.

Missoula (45-8-1) heads to the Junior-A Tier III national tournament beginning March 30 in Rochester, Minn., before hosting the defending national champion Helena Bighorns in the AWHL finals. Game 1 of the AWHL finals is set for Glacier Ice Rink on April 13.

The Maulers played much more like the team that won all eight regular-season meetings and the first three games of the best-of-7 series against the Wild, than the one that fumbled two straight chances to finish off Gillette (25-29-0) on the road last weekend.

Second-team AWHL all-star goalie McKinlee Baum turned aside all 22 shots he faced for the Maulers, while Missoula peppered Wild netminder Nick Vittori with 43 shots.

Zach Paisley scored twice in the third period after Corey Schafer, Will Stawinski and Oscar Bjorkander had beaten Vittori.

Schafer scored his sixth goal of the playoffs just under six minutes into action to set the tone for the Maulers, who skated into the first intermission with just a 1-0 lead despite playing far superior hockey.

Stawinski gave Missoula a two-goal advantage at the 8:39 mark of the second by sending a knuckling wrist shot past Vittori. Bjorkander took a nifty cross-ice pass from Jimmy Morris and netted the Maulers’ third tally a little more than four minutes later.

But Paisley slammed the door with an even-strength tally near the midpoint of the third, then finished it off with a power-play goal with an even four minutes left.

When the final horn sounded, the Maulers rushed Baum and celebrated their berth in the AWHL championship series.

A league championship series with Bighorns, who the Maulers edged for the regular-season league title, looms on the horizon. But for now, Missoula’s sights are set on winning nationals.

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