ECHL Playoffs: 'Thunder'-struck Twice in Idaho

Chase Schaber screens Stockton goalie Olivier Roy in one of this weekend's games against the Thunder.
John Mulhern is back again to fill us in on the week in Steelheads' hockey...

Stunned silence. That is how the fans left Century Link Arena this past Sunday night. Oh sure I’m willing to bet there were a few utterances made under people’s breath, but for the most part all anyone could hear was the Stockton Thunder players and staff celebrating their overtime win to take a 2-0 lead after two games in the ECHL’s Western Conference Finals. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At worse you figured the teams would split, but not with the Idaho Steelheads losing both of their home games to start the series.

In game one on Friday, the Steelheads came out fast and furious. They were creating pressure and they were able to pick up a lot of loose pucks to create great transition chances. The only thing stopping the Steelheads from having a 3-0 lead after the first period was some outstanding play from Olivier Roy who stopped all 13 shots faced in the period. Stockton did end up with 7 shots in the period, but most of that came on the power play as they had 2 chances in the first. Josh Robinson turned aside all of those shots as it was clear, at least in the first period, that Stockton would not get a lot of great chances.

In the second, Stockton would get on the board first as the Steelheads were under to clear the puck out of their zone, and when Andrew Clark found the puck on his stick he threw a blind backhand shot on net that beat Robinson to stake Stockton to a 1-0 lead just 4:01 into the second period. Despite another 13 shots, the Steelheads remained goalless after 40 minutes.

In the third period, David de Kastrozza would knot the game at 1 just 14 seconds into the third period when he was able to take a quick pass from the behind the net from Brett Robinson and fire past Roy for his 3rd goal of the playoffs. On this night de Kastrozza was clearly the best Steelhead on the ice. He played physically and with speed all night long. The Steelheads caught a huge break about 14 second later when it appeared that Stockton took the lead right back, and after the referee called it a goal, and a lengthy discussion including the goal judge, he overturned the initial call and waved off the goal. (There is no replay in the ECHL level. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways based on the direction the camera was facing it would have been inconclusive.)

The Thunder  were not to be denied on this night. At the 13:18 mark of the period Maxime Boisclair would knock home a goal from about waist high to give Stockton a 2-1 lead. It was a shot that Robinson never really had a chance on as the puck came on a pass high through the slot area. A bit of 5 minutes later as the Steelheads were pushing for the equalizer, Ryan Hayes would drive the final nail into the coffin as he snapped home a clean shot from the top of the left wing circle to create a 3-1 score and give Stockton a 1-0 lead in the series.

Back at it on Sunday, head coach Brad Ralph kept the Idaho Steelheads line-up in-tact. Can’t blame him either as after a close game on Friday where the Stockton Thunder were just able to capitalize on a couple of defensive breakdowns to win game 1. In game two things started a little more tight checking. Neither team could really establish much in the first half of the period. A lot of stoppages early messed with the flow of the game. It wasn’t until the 14:24 mark of the period where once again Stockton jumped out to a 1-0 lead. It was once again Maxime Boisclair with the goal. The Steelheads would get a huge goal at the 19:18 mark of the period as Austin Smith got his 7th goal of the playoffs to tie the game at 1 as the teams headed for the locker rooms.

In the second, Stockton would only get 6 shots on net, but one of them found the back of the net as Matt Bergland notched his 6th of the playoffs to give Stockton a 2-1 lead at the 12:52 mark of the period. The Steelheads had 12 shots, but once again all were turned away by Olivier Roy.

The third period started with hope. Surely with 20 minutes to play the Steelheads would be able to get one goal and Josh Robinson would be able to turn away enough shots to allow the Steelheads to get the win. However, just 51 seconds into the 3rd period, the questions changed after the Thunder took a 3-1 lead when Ryan Hayes got a puck past Robinson. At this point the question that I had turned into more of a statement. The Steelheads would get the two goals to force overtime or they would lose in regulation. I just didn’t see a team capable of 3 goals in 19 minutes.

Adrian Foster would make it a 3-2 game as he was able to take a nice feed from Ben Ondrus, after Ondrus won a faceoff forward from the offensive right wing faceoff spot, split two men and slid a puck to a waiting Foster at the 6:48 mark of the period. The Steelheads would continue to push and just when you thought maybe there wouldn’t be enough left in the tank, Foster would strike again. This time on a rebound at the 14:17 mark to tie the game at 3. The teams would head to overtime with the same score.
Both the Steelheads (4-1) and the Thunder (4-0) have seen their share of overtimes this postseason. What I didn’t immediately know is that the Thunder are 11-0 in their past 11 OT playoff games and Olivier Roy is 7-0 himself.

When the overtime started, the Steelheads a couple of good chances to finish the game early as had been their trend during the playoffs, however, Roy was able to make saves and a little bit of puck luck had the Steelheads missing just high or just wide. After about 5 minutes of the overtime, the Thunder once again found their legs and did not let the Steelheads mount any chances against Roy the remainder of the game. At the 11:39 mark, Andrew Clark would bang home a rebound and gave the Thunder a 4-3 win as well as a commanding 2-0 series lead as the series now shifts to Stockton.

The ECHL Conference Finals are the first games to ever use a 2 referee system at the ECHL level. There were only 3 penalties called in game 1 as the teams didn’t try a lot of “funny stuff”. In game 2 that number jumped up to 12, but not much more than what you would normally see in a one man system. It looks like it is working well and keeping things away from the play in check.

I would expect to see a goaltender change for the Steelheads in game 3 of the playoffs. I don’t think it is because Josh Robinson has played terrible in the first 2 games, but obviously something isn’t working in the defensive zone. With Tyler Beskorowany being a big of a bigger goaltender as well as a bit better at handling the puck, I think he’ll be able to assist the defensemen a bit and allow them a bit more time to get the puck out of the zone.

I also think a shuffling of the lines could be in order as well. There have been a couple of players (Austin Smith and Tyler Gron) that could use a bit of a kick in the pants to work a bit harder defensively, and possibly having different line mates might be able to accomplish that.

I don’t think all is lost for the Steelheads. Of course you don’t like to be down 2-0 in a best of seven especially when heading to the road, but I don’t think the Thunder have clearly outplayed the Steelheads through 2 games, and I expect the Steelheads to find another gear and apply some pressure. Of course it still remains to be seen in results on the ice, but hopefully the next article will be regarding a much needed Steelheads victory.

Idaho drops the puck on Game 3 tonight at 9:00 PM Central.