Tuesday afternoon’s practice at CenturyLink Arena ended as many others have this season, with the Steelheads split into two teams for a mini-game at center ice. With players battling for afternoon bragging rights and throwing out their best chirps, it was a jovial atmosphere three days before the most important game of the season. And every game the rest of the way will mean just as much.
The Steelheads kickoff the U.S. Bank Kelly Cup Playoffs on Friday night at CenturyLink Arena, the 21st time in 21 seasons that there will be playoff hockey in Boise. The Steelheads will face the Allen Americans, a team they faced ten times this year and twice last weekend to wrap up the regular season.
While the stakes will be much higher than they were at Allen Event Center a week ago, the Steelheads aren’t about to alter the mindset that led them to 96 points this year, their fourth-highest total in the ECHL era.
“I think we continue with the same preparation model that we’ve used all season,” said Head Coach Neil Graham, preparing for his third playoff run as head coach. “There are points where we’re heavier on it and points where we back off, but really over the last month we have been ramping up with how we’ve been preparing for each team. I think that’ll carry into this week.”
It’s hard to argue the Steelheads would need to change anything for the Mountain Division Semifinal, as the Steelheads look to escape the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Steelheads closed out the season as one of the ECHL’s hottest teams, going 9-0-1 over their final ten games and outscoring opponents by a 37-13 margin.
“Playoff hockey is a different game. For some teams it’s a clean slate, but talking to coach he said we’re not changing anything,” said Steve McParland, who led the Steelheads with 31 goals in his first year in Idaho.
“We’re going to carry what we’ve done all year into playoffs. We had a really good regular season and I don’t see the need to change anything, and neither did coach. As a team, we decided to continue business as usual.”
McParland was one of several Steelheads who had very promising finishes to the season. Tomas Sholl earned plenty of headlines between the pipes and was named the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Month for March. Max French ended the season on an eight-game points streak (nine goals, 14 points), and Cole Ully was close behind with nine goals and 12 points over the last seven games. Team MVP Brady Brassart had points in seven of his last eight games.
“Sometimes you have an off game, and when you have guys picking up the slack and playing their best hockey it’s how you have a successful team,” said McParland.
With the Americans headed to town just a week after the season-ending series in Texas, the Steelheads could potentially face the Americans nine consecutive times if the seven-game series goes the distance. That schedule would look intimidating for the teams in both rooms, but for the Steelheads it could also feel familiar.
From January 24th to February 17th, Idaho faced the first-place Colorado Eagles nine times in a span of 12 contests. The Steelheads lost the first three games of the super-series, but responded to win five of the last six.
“That was a battle and we know how important those games were at that time of year. We were in a dog fight with them at the time and we did pretty well in those series,” said Graham. “You can’t compare playoffs and regular season because it’s a whole different animal, but in the same breath and just having played (Allen) last weekend, it gives you a bit of a feel for what they’re about.”
“They’ll make some adjustments and so will we, but personnel-wise you get a feel for the pace of the game. Both teams are pretty familiar with how the other plays, and it’ll be about making the plays at the right time and executing at a high level.”
The Steelheads have home ice advantage in the opening round for the first time since 2015, an advantage that only exists if you come out strong at the outset of a series.
“You want to come out and win the first game, and that’s our focus. We want to come out, play well, win the first game and go from there,” said Graham. “It’s a cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason. Teams that do that the best are the ones that will separate themselves from the pack.”
It will be a two month marathon for the Steelheads to reach their ultimate goal of a third Kelly Cup championship. The consensus in the locker room is that the journey will be one of internal discovery for a team trying to make this week leading up to playoffs feel like every other week.
“Probably the biggest part of our preparation is making sure we focus on what makes us successful.”