For 60 minutes, the Billings Bulls displayed the hallmarks of a hardworking team capable of hanging with the best of the NorPac Hockey League.
In reality, the Bulls still have to cross the bridge between looking like a contender and being one.
Andrew Sherman stopped 35 of 37 shots — including a handful of incredible saves — but it wasn't enough as the Missoula Maulers split the two-game weekend set against Billings with a 2-1 victory at Centennial Ice Arena on Saturday night.
Sherman came up huge on several occasions. The former entrenched starter and now backup goalie faced flurries in the second period and stoned the Maulers on two breakaway attempts, but he let in a penalty shot off the stick of Matt Anthone early in the final period that proved to be the decisive score.
Bulls defenseman Taylor Fritts was charged with the penalty after taking down Anthone as the two raced down the ice toward Sherman. Referee Steffan Franschetti called for the free shot, though it appeared Fritts that may have got his stick to the puck before Anthone fell.
“Fritts got (to the puck) first, in the rulebook that's not a penalty shot” said Sherman, whose only other error came on a Julian Breux goal from a sharp angle late in the first period. “On both those goals, though, I should have had saves. Really, everyone could have given a little more tonight, including myself.”
Justin Bonanno slipped a shot past Missoula netminder Andy DiCristofaro with 1:57 to play, but it was too late for Billings, which couldn't field a decent chance on net in the final moments even after Sherman went to the bench for the extra attacker.
“It wasn't there at all for us tonight,” said Bulls coach Chris Hartly, whose team dropped only its fourth game in the past 12. “We moved the puck well, ran the plays right today, but we didn't play with any urgency or determination.”
The Bulls were trying to win back-to-back games against Missoula for the first time since they ended the 2007-08 season with a five-game winning streak against the expansion Maulers.
“We are a pretty up and down team right now,” Hartly said. “We have to get better and stay consistent.”
The Bulls had chances, especially in the second period when DiCristofaro made a blind save on an Oliver Wong one-timer in the crease. With 6:33 left in the period, Wong found himself with an empty net to shoot at, only to see DiCristofaro swivel his body at the right time to cover the puck with his right leg. Wong may not have seen the save; he already had an arm up in celebration.
DiCristofaro also got some help from teammate Taylor Everhart late in the third as Everhart knocked down a lose puck in midair with his glove as DiCristofaro lay flat on the ice, out of the play.
Despite the loss, the Bulls (10-12) will have a chance to reach .500 for the first time this season when they open a three-game weekend Friday at Cody, Wyo., against the Yellowstone Quake. They'll travel to Butte on Saturday before closing at home against the first-place Helena Bighorns.
“We know that we can play with these teams,” Sherman said. “We can win these games if we give everything we got. They're all tough games, but we have got to come away with points.”