Being the top seed at the state tournament isn't unfamiliar territory for the Missoula Bruins high school hockey team.
Last year, the Bruins were the top team in the state during regular-season action, but were upset in a 2-0 loss to the Billings Bulls in the semifinals. They earned a third-place trophy by beating the Havre Ice Hawks 7-5 in the consolation game.
When Missoula (23-9-4) hits the ice for its first game at the state tournament in Billings at 9:15 a.m. against the Glacier Avalanche from Whitefish, the Bruins will be starting their quest for the program's first high school state title.
Though the Bruins dropped five of their last seven games since wrapping up Montana Amateur Hockey Association play at 16-1-3, second-year Missoula head coach Joren Johnson believes finishing the regular season against talented clubs from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia was good for his team.
"I think before this last stretch they were a little bit overconfident," he said. "Facing teams that used that style of play forced us to fight for everything we got and never give up."
On the season, the Bruins have outscored their opponents 177-91. Leading Missoula's high-powered attack is forward Brett Mathews, the team's points leader with 32 goals and 28 assists. He's backed by team captain Cody Skilling (28 goals, 28 assists), Castle Creighton (26 goals, 23 assists) and Anders Nord (23 goals, 15 assists).
A pair of strong goaltenders anchor the Missoula defense, which allows 2.53 goals a game. Aaron Schwartz is the Bruins' No. 1 goalie and has posted a 14-7-2 record in 25 games played. Schwartz owns a 2.08 goals-against average and 91.1 save percentage. Kyle Laughnan backs up Schwartz with a 7-2-2 record, a 2.55 goal against average and an 87.6 save percentage.
Johnson likes the makeup of his club and thinks it has a strong shot at reaching Sunday's 1 p.m. championship game.
"I think our chances are just as good as they were last year," he said. "But this team will fight harder than last year. I feel like there's more of a will to win and more heart on this year's team over last year's."