Monday, April 13, 2015

Top-Seeded Idaho Steelheads Prepare for Playoffs Against Familiar Foe

Olivier Roy (Credit: Idaho Steelheads)
John Mulhern returns to preview the Idaho Steelheads' first round playoff matchup against Utah, which starts Wednesday in Boise...

After 72 games, tying a team record of 48 wins, hitting 100 points for only the second time in the ECHL era (102) and clinching another division title, the Idaho Steelheads are ready to start the U.S. Bank ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs on Wednesday, April 15th.

Their opponent will be the Utah Grizzlies who managed to clinch the 4th seed in the Pacific Division courtesy of an overtime victory Friday night against the Colorado Eagles. This will be only the second time the Steelheads and the Grizzlies have met in the playoffs. The first was back in 2010 when the Steelheads defeated the Grizzlies four games to none on their way to winning the Western Conference.

Before we get into details about the playoff series coming up, let’s take a quick look back at some of the final numbers for Idaho this season.

Wade MacLeod led the Steelheads in total points this season with 80. His 38 goals and 42 assists were also good enough to put him in second place in all of the ECHL trailing only Chad Costello of the Allen Americas, who ended his season with 125 points. MacLeod’s 38 goals was also tops for the Idaho Steelheads; Jason Bast finished second on the team with 30 goals. After MacLeod’s 42 assists, Alex Belzile finished second on the team with 41.

A couple of postseason awards have also been handed out. Jason Bast made the ECHL All-Rookie Team (30-22=52 and plus-23) on the season in just 52 games played. When the ECHL First and Second Teams were announced, Wade MacLeod, found his name listed among the forwards of the ECHL First Team.

On to the playoffs

This season, the ECHL has set up the playoffs in a divisional format. As the one seed, the Steelheads draw the Grizzlies for round one starting Wednesday. The winner of this series will play the winner of the Ontario Reign (2) and Colorado Eagles (3) series for the right to play the winner of the Central Division, with the winner of that series playing the Eastern Conference champion for the right to raise the Kelly Cup.

By the numbers

The Steelheads had a 7-3-3 record against the Grizzlies this year, however seven of the 13 games were decided by just one goal, and five of those games went into either overtime or to a shootout. When it comes to who produced against the Grizzlies in the regular season, one can look to MacLeod (19 points), Belzile (14 points) and Patterson (11 points). Olivier Roy was 3-0 against the Grizzlies with a .924 save percentage on the season.

When you look at Utah’s performers against Idaho this year, you have to turn to Mathieu Aubin (11 points) and Alex Krushelnyski (8 points). But you also can look at guys like T.J. Syner and Michael Pelech as guys that will need to be contended with over the course of the series. Utah plays a fast, high pressure fore-checking system and a guy like Syner has created more than a handful of chances while executing the system. There will be no goaltender advantage in this series as Igor Bobkov will man the pipes for Utah. He will boast a 2.58 GAA and a .918 save percentage over the course of the season.

On the ice

The Steelheads are going to start the playoffs after getting an entire week off to rest and recover from their last regular season game. Time off is always good as it will allow the players to rest and get over some of the bumps and bruises that some of the guys may have been trying to play through at the end of the season. Idaho’s head coach Brad Ralph also took the opportunity to give some key players a night off towards the end of the season as a way to lessen the load and buy an extra day or two of rest. Utah will come into the start of the playoffs having finished their regular season on Saturday, so they should have the advantage of game legs. All I can predict is that we will find another answer to the question of which is better, rested legs, or game-tested legs.

There is also no love lost between these two teams. They played 13 times this season on top of 15 times last season. There has been a lot of carry over members of both teams that played during both seasons. Normally in the playoffs the number of power plays go down so each chance is amplified, but I have to imagine based on the way a lot of the games this season have played out, there are going to be ample chances for both sides to score on the power play and shorthanded. Both teams are very proficient when it comes to scoring goals while down a man during the regular season.

The Matchup

Let’s try to match-up both sides:

Goaltending

Igor Bobkov vs Olivier Roy – I’m calling this one even. Bobkov has 19 wins and 4 shutouts on the season and Roy brings 25 wins as well as 4 shutouts to the table. It looks like Roy would have the advantage, but with Roy being injured for all but the last 4 games of the regular season, I want to see one or two more games in the playoffs before I give the Steelheads the advantage in this match-up.

Defensemen

Advantage Idaho. Idaho over the course of the season allowed 187 total goals vs the 219 that Utah allowed this season. Neither defense has the advantage when it comes to putting the puck in the net, but one thing to keep an eye on is Utah’s ability to have 5 players drop below the circles in their own end, but quickly transition to try to take advantage of a mistake. Utah is never out of a game and only needs one or two chances to make teams pay.

Offense

Again, I have to call this one even. Idaho has the more explosive players, but Utah has a team that works hard and will always give themselves a chance to win these games. Once again refer back to how close the games between Utah and Idaho have been over the last season. Both offenses have done enough to win their fair share of games.

Conclusion

This is one of those series where you almost have to try to do your best to throw out regular season numbers. Even during the middle of the season, it doesn’t matter if a team is streaking or struggling. These two teams are going to play it tight all the way to the end. The homer in me can’t believe that the Steelheads are going to lose 4 out of 7 against the Grizzlies, but the objective person in me can totally believe this series will go 6 or 7 games, with every game being in doubt until the late minutes and even into overtime. I’ll take Idaho to win the series.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1: Utah @ Idaho (Wednesday, April 15)
  • Game 2 Idaho @ Utah (Friday, April 17)
  • Game 3 Idaho @ Utah (Saturday, April 18)
  • Game 4 Utah @ Idaho (Friday, April 24)
  • Game 5 Utah @ Idaho (Saturday, April 25) – If Necessary
  • Game 6 Idaho @ Utah (Monday, April 27) – If Necessary
  • Game 7 Utah @ Idaho (Wednesday, April 29) If Necessary

[Ed. Note: Building availability in Utah created the odd 1-2-2-1-1 format of this series]

John Mulhern is the arena emcee for CenturyLink Arena, home of the Idaho Steelheads, and does on-air work for the Steelheads broadcast in addition to his own Two Sports Nuts podcast. You can also follow John on Twitter @mulhern4.

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