As MetraPark officials get set to open the doors of Rimrock Auto Arena to the Billings Bulls once again, the long-established junior hockey franchise hopes to turn the corner on an up-and-down season.
At the very least, the Bulls believe they are playing better hockey than they were earlier in the season.
“We’re starting to find our identity,” fourth-year coach Mike Hass said. “With only four returning players from last year, and being so young, we were waiting for some of the kids to step up and lead and that took a little bit of time. But the progress has come around very good.”
Billings will face the Butte Roughriders tonight and the Yellowstone Quake on Saturday. Both games face off at 7:30 p.m.
It is a continuation of an annual tradition that brings the Bulls “home.”
Rimrock Auto Arena, of course, was the Bulls’ home when they were a Tier II Junior A team from 1993 to 2006. An unresolved lease dispute ended the team’s 13-year run there, and now the squad plays at the Tier III level at Centennial Ice Arena.
Billings is 4-1 in games at Rimrock Auto Arena since moving.
Tonight’s game is the first of five the Bulls will play at their old haunt.
The inaugural NorPac Hockey League Showcase will be held at Rimrock Auto Arena on Jan. 7-9.
“There’s something magical about that place,” said Hass, who played for the Bulls in their first season, 1993-94. “I think it’s kind of built for hockey and to have us back in there is a huge thing. It draws a lot of fans that maybe might not come out to Centennial. The last few years we’ve averaged over 2,000 a night, which is very good for us.
“The whole month of December, that was all the talk in our locker room. It was Metra, Metra, Metra. It’s very special for these kids. They really enjoy it. It’s a fun experience.”
The Bulls bring an 11-18 record into tonight’s game. Their 22 points are good for fourth place in the America West division. If the season ended today, Billings would be in the playoffs.
Veteran forward Stormy Knight leads the Bulls in scoring with 33 points (seven goals, 26 assists). Forwards Jason Effertz and Mike Persigehl are the team’s top goal scorers, with 16 each.
But with only 94 goals in 29 games, Hass said the team is looking for more of an offensive spark.
“The one disappointment might be that our goal scoring hasn’t been there in a couple games,” Hass said. “When we lose we’re not losing by big numbers, which is a positive, but I think we need to get better at putting the puck in net.
“If we can find a way to do that we’re going to win a lot of games this second half of the season.”
Defensively, the Bulls have been streaky at times but have been better in their last five games, having allowed 18 goals in that span.
Billings could get well in a hurry against Butte, a team with a 1-27 record that gives up an average of more than seven goals per game.
Yellowstone, with a 17-10 mark and 34 points, is stronger than that. The Quake, located in Cody, Wyo., are in third place in the division.
Yellowstone also boasts one of the league’s top scorers in forward Chris Rinaldi (23 goals, 23 assists).
The Bulls want this weekend to serve as a springboard to second-half success.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Hass said. “We have some momentum. We just need to start winning some hockey games and getting some W’s.”
NOTES: Tonight’s game is “Billings Clinic Must Win Night.” If the Bulls win, everyone in attendance will receive a free taco, compliments of Taco John’s. Fans can skate with the team after the game. Monte, the University of Montana’s mascot, will also be in attendance. … Saturday’s game is “Stockman Bank Hall of Fame Night.” Former Bulls players Jerod Bina and Doug Johnson, who also was the team’s head coach for one season, are the newest inductees.