|(Credit: Idaho Steelheads)|
As rare as a leap year, it’s another Idaho Steelheads report.
The last report had the Steelheads earning points in 10 of 12 games, pulling themselves out of the bottom of the Western Division and into a playoff position. One thing that was hanging over Idaho’s head was the fact that they had played the most games of any team in the ECHL through that point in the season, so the challenge going through the rest of January and February, was play well enough to hold their position in the standings and hope for some help during that time with teams losing some of their games in hand. The scenario would have been great. What happened was even better.
Since the last Steelheads report, the Steelheads have gone on to win 12 of 17 games, putting themselves into first place in the Western Division at various times during the past two weeks. During this push, the Steelheads have twice had four-game winning streaks and at one point won eight out of nine games. This is a team that, since December 10th, has been the best team in the ECHL, and the record has shown that. They went from a team with a 7-14-4-0 record up to that point to turn things around to a 21-6-1-1 record since.
Also during this stretch of games Jack Campbell won the CCM ECHL Goaltender of the Week award twice in January, as well as January’s Warrior Hockey Goaltender of the Month award. Campbell will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t get those awards without great team play in front of him. I wholeheartedly agree in that assessment.
The ECHL doesn’t officially track blocked shots. However, I tried to track them during the game broadcast, and every single time I come up with no less than 20 blocked shots. The blocked shots came from everyone; Andrew Carroll, Carson McMillan, Rob Linsmayer, Corbin Baldwin, Shawn Boutin just to name a few.
Note that there are both forwards and defensemen on the list. Consider them representatives for those positions. This Steelheads team has fully bought into the message of Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Gord Baldwin this season. More on that in a minute, but the commitment to total team defense is there and that is a big part and contributor to the reason for the significant turnaround.
Scoring depth has also been a part of this run of games. At times when it’s been a struggle for the leading goal scorers (Rob Linsmayer, Jefferson Dahl and Kyle Jean), the depth of the team has started to produce at very steady numbers. Carson McMillan got his first professional hat trick against the Rapid City Rush on January 27th and added a second on February 21st against the Wichita Thunder. Andrew Carroll, Joe Basaraba, Jake Fallon, Torin Snydeman and new addition Radoslav Illo have all helped from the forward position. Zach Yuen, Zack Kamrass, Shawn Boutin and Corbin Baldwin have contributed from the blue line.
Here is probably the most important contributing factor to the Steelheads play of the past two months: Neil Graham and Gord Baldwin’s philosophy and message about “just focus on today.” This is a Steelheads team that after earning points in their first three games of the season, fell into such a tremendous hole that could easily have buried a lot of teams. However, Graham and Baldwin, stayed the course, made a few player transactions, and kept the message the same in the room. Focus on today only, and worry about tomorrow when we get there.
It’s one of the hardest things in sports to push across to anyone, fans, players and media members alike. A team cannot simply just play one game and get out of a hole and back to the top. It has to be a process and the team has to believe that the process can and will work. This Steelheads team from the coaching staff, to the leaders in the room, to the rookies and in season acquisitions, have bought in and continue to believe in the process of one day at a time. Now a Steelheads team, which many could have left for dead just over two months ago, is in a fight, not only for a playoff position, but for a Western Division title with 18 games to go in the season.
John Mulhern is the host of the Bud Light Idaho Steelheads Hockey show on 1350 AM KTIK in Boise. He is the home game ice-level color analyst for the Steelheads and also hosts his own Two Sports Nuts podcast. You can also follow John on Twitter @mulhern4.