|Emil Molin (Credit: Michael Connell/Texas Stars)|
It’s finally playoff time here in Idaho, as it is for the rest of the Stars organization. Dallas, Texas and Idaho are all in the playoffs which speaks volumes to the depth of the organization as well as the continued future success for the Dallas Stars in the NHL.
Just a brief recap before we preview the playoffs here in Idaho. The Steelheads finished their season with a 4-3-2-1 record in their last 10 games and finished in a tie for first place in the Western Division, only losing the title to the Colorado Eagles due to the tiebreaker of Regulation and Overtime wins (41 to 35).
Taking a slightly deeper look at the last 10, the Steelheads managed points in seven of those ten games, with the only regulation losses coming against the Eagles (2) and the Missouri Mavericks (1). Plus with three of the losses coming in the 3 on 3 overtime or a shootout, here is the yearly reminder that they play five on five in the playoffs and there is no shootout to contend with.
Now on to the playoffs. The eight teams that made the playoffs in the Western Conference are:
- Missouri Mavericks (Bridgeport Sound Tigers)
- Fort Wayne Komets (San Antonio Rampage)
- Colorado Eagles (Independent)
- Allen Americans (San Jose Barracuda)
- Idaho Steelheads (Texas Stars)
- Utah Grizzlies (San Diego Gulls)
- Cincinnati Cyclones (Milwaukee Admirals)
- Quad City Mallards (Iowa Wild)
Playoff matchups are set in a straight seeded bracket where the winners of the series below will play each other in the Conference Semi-Finals
1) Missouri vs. 8) Quad City
4) Allen vs 5) Idaho
2) Fort Wayne vs. 7) Cincinnati
3) Colorado vs. 6) Utah
With the Steelheads finishing fifth in the conference, they draw the Allen Americans in the first round. The Americans are the defending Kelly Cup Champions and have not lost a playoff series in over three seasons dating back to their time in the CHL. The Steelheads went 2-1-1 against the American this year. Both teams split in the opposing building as each team managed a 1-0-1 record. The most interesting part of this upcoming series is that all four of these games happened in December and the teams haven’t seen each other since.
The Americans finished their season with a 5-3-0-2 record to finish in the fourth spot in the conference as they were locked out of the top three by the Missouri Mavericks. The Americans will have the now two time ECHL scoring champion Chad Costello (103 pts) leading the way for a very deep and talented team, which includes Casey Pierro-Zabotel (47 pts), Gary Steffes (45 pts) Chris Crane (38 pts) and former Idaho Steelheads forward, Tristan King (33 pts).
In the final Western Conference Standings, the Steelheads only finished three points behind the Americans (86 vs 89). Also statistically speaking Allen scored 222 goals on the season while yielding 204. Idaho scored 203 while only yielding 187 goals. Special teams numbers are interesting as well. The Steelheads come into the playoffs with the best penalty kill percentage of all of the Western Conference teams with an 86.5% rating. The Americans were the second best penalty killing unit in the Western Conference with an 86.4% rating. The power play numbers have a slightly wider gap, as the Americans had the top power play in the regular season with a 21.1% rating, while the Steelheads finished the season at 15.1% with the man advantage.
In this section, let’s try to figure out which team might have the advantage over the other going into this series.
Forwards: Advantage None
Immediately, you take a look at Allen’s roster and you see Chad Costello with 103 points and you’re immediately amazed at that number. But their number two point man is Casey Pierro-Zabotel with 47 points which would put him third on the Idaho Steelheads. Clearly Costello is a man that the Steelheads will have to pay attention to, just as the MoJoe line of Carson McMillan, Andre Bouvet-Morrissette and Joe Basaraba will be one of the focuses for the Americans.
As mentioned above these teams were only separated by 19 goals scored over the course of the season. Include in this that I know the kind of defensive effort the forwards are going to bring to the table for Idaho, and I don’t think that either team really has a significant edge in terms of the forwards.
Recognizing some ignorance with regard to the Americans roster, I do think that a big key for Idaho will be the continued development of Kruise Reddick. Reddick had three points in seven games for the Steelheads at the end of the season and will be relied upon to continue his offensive play, as Jefferson Dahl continues to mend and wait out his time from the 21 IR that he was moved to just prior to the end of the season
Defense: Advantage Idaho
Some argue that plus/minus isn’t all that great of an indicator of much anymore with the move towards advanced statistics and analytics, but I still hold them in some regard when it comes to defensemen. One look at Allen’s roster from the regular season will tell you that they have no problem with the “D” jumping up into the play and producing on the offensive side of the ledger. Allen has four defensemen that totaled over 30 points this season from the blue line, while the Steelheads have four that scored over 20 points.
This is where the plus/minus comes into play in my opinion, the Steelheads have done an outstanding job of keeping the other teams off the board when they play five on five hockey. Couple that with an outstanding experienced shutdown pair of Shawn Boutin and Corbin Baldwin, along with hardworking back-checking forwards, the edge in this category has to go to Idaho.
Goaltending: Advantage Idaho (But could be Allen)
If you think this is a cop out move, you’re absolutely right, it is. Looking at the numbers of the perceived starters, the numbers indicate that Philippe Desrosiers (2.34gaa & .913%) and Branden Komm (2.41gaa & .915%) will be the better tandem in net against Riley Gill (2.74gaa & .907%) or Joel Rumpel (2.81gaa and .907%). Here is the caveat, the Americans are carrying three goaltenders on their playoff roster to start. The third is Jake Hildebrand. He has played six games for Allen this season, after coming out of Michigan State. His numbers; 5-1 with a 2.31gaa and a .925%. If Hildebrand is the guy to get the starts for Allen, it could very easily tip the edge, ever so slightly to the Americans for this category.
Special Teams: Advantage Allen
Yes the Steelheads have an outstanding penalty kill, but so does Allen. This box goes for the Americans based on the strength of their power play vs. the not as strong Steelheads power play.
Now that all of the stats have been covered, let’s get down to trying to figure out how this series is going to play out. First the series set-up is 2-3-2 with the first two games in Allen as well as games six and seven if necessary. Games three, four and five (if necessary) will be in Idaho. In this format, I’ve always thought that it gives a huge advantage for the road team (Idaho) in that not only do you get home ice if you win one of the first two games on the road, the higher seed now has all the pressure in the world just to try to win enough games to get the series back to their home ice for the possible deciding game. I think given that format of the series, and the fact that Neil Graham’s mantra all season long has been focus on one game at a time, I think Idaho can go into Allen and steal at least one of the road games.
This is a series, where special teams and goaltending are going to be so important. It’s important for the Steelheads to remain physical yet disciplined in order to keep Allen off of the power play. It’s also important for Idaho to capitalize on the chances they will get with the man advantage.
Be mindful of the extra official. The ECHL which has had two officials for later playoff rounds for the last couple of years, are now moving to a two referee system for all playoff games, so the extra little chop or trip behind the play that may have been missed last week, might get you two minutes in the box this week. It’ll be an adjustment for the players and could have a bearing on more than a couple of ECHL playoff games over the next 2 months.
I’m going Steelheads in 6.
As of now the plan is to have some sort of write-up after each home game. The format was yet to be determined, but stay tuned.
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.