By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
No matter what its record may have been in the regular season, the Havre Ice Hawks high school hockey team is still considered the champion, until somebody proves otherwise.
Actually, that would be the two-time defending state champs.
Havre will look for an impressive third straight title today when the Ice Hawks open up the 2005 M.A.H.A state
championship tournament against Butte at 11:50 a.m. at the Billings Metra.
The Ice Hawks' regular season record of 8-6-2 may not seem overwhelming, but it was good enough to place them third in a very tough Western Division.
"Our division was definitely the tougher of the two," said Ice Hawks head coach Gabe Musson. "There were some really good teams that we had to face four times this season."
One of those tough teams is a formidable Butte squad that finished 2-1-1 against Havre this season.
"Butte is a solid team," Musson said. "They have two of the top goal scorers in the Western Division. They
are very fast and aggressive."
But the fun doesn't end for the Ice Hawks today. They will have to submit to double duty and face the always tough Valley Ice Garden squad from the Gallatin Valley tonight at 6:20.
Musson considers VIG to be one of the championship favorites this weekend.
"We have two very tough games to start out with," Musson said. "And it's tougher because we have to play them in the same day. If we can find a way to make it through these games with a couple of wins, we will be OK."
In the tournament's round-robin preliminary format, a split of the first two games would be more than acceptable. But it will take a total team effort.
"Our depth will be a factor," Musson said. "Any time you play five games on a weekend and two in one day, it really wipes you out."
Luckily, the Ice Hawks have solid depth and a wealth of state tourney experience led by senior captain Andy
Hanson has been Havre's most consistent goal scorer all season and really is the catalyst for the Ice Hawks' offense.
"Andy is our captain and he really has played like it all year," Musson said. "He does a good job of leading the team and there were times when he puts this team on his shoulders and carries it."
Hanson will have help from alternate captains in senior forward Ben Erickson and senior defenseman Zach
Musson, Gabe's younger brother.
"I'm really looking for Ben and Zach to step up and contribute this weekend," Musson said.
Another factor will be goalkeeper Mark Larson, who minded the nets in Havre's two championship runs. This season, Larson has played out of the net on occasions, playing well at forward and allowing freshman David
Zentmire some time in goal.
That will change this weekend as Larson will move back in between the pipes to anchor Havre's defense.
"We've been mixing it up some this season, but we have to go with Mark at state," Musson said. "He's got two titles under his belt and he has been solid when he's been in goal."
While Larson is back to help the defense, there are plenty of capable forwards to pick up his slack on offense. Scoring goals hasn't been a problem this season for Havre.
Senior transfer forward Ted Wells has blended in well with the returnees like senior Josh Strissel, juniors Josh Morse and Michelle Armstrong and sophomores Will Schilling and Michael Erickson. Also seeing time at
forward are freshmen Nick Nault and and Tyler Boyce.
"We're a team that's very quick to score," Musson said. "We need to get out and get that first goal and maintain the lead. We have a tendency of letting up on teams when we get early leads. That can't happen this weekend."
With high-scoring opponents, the Ice Hawks must be better defensively in all facets, particularly defending the power play.
"That's an area we've struggled with at times," Musson said.
Besides Larson and Zach Musson on defense, the Ice Hawks also return experienced defensemen in juniors Shiloh Barrett, Austin Small and Scott Ladenburg and get solid minutes from freshman Andrew Linquist.
With all the returning state tourney experience, Coach Musson knows regular-season records mean little if anything.
"We're the two-time defending champs until someone takes it away from us," Musson said. "And we've beaten everybody we've played at least once this season. If we play well and play together, there is no reason why we can't make it three straight."
Havre will return to action on Friday at 9:10 p.m. The Ice Hawks' remaining games on Saturday will be determined by round-robin results, with the championship played on Sunday at 10 a.m.