After two impressive outings last weekend in their preseason series with the Utah Grizzlies, several Steelheads players were saying the exact same thing.
“Wow, we’re a fast team.”
Head Coach Neil Graham named speed and toughness as two critical elements to improve upon when he was building his roster over the summer. Toughness was on display with forward Reid Halabi twice dropping the gloves with Utah’s Travis Howe, but the Steelheads’ rapid puck movement and run-and-gun style might have been more attention grabbing for the crowd than any of the fists and fury that usually accompany Steelheads-Grizzlies games.
“I thought it was very fast, actually. It was good to get the legs back into it early to prepare for the regular season,” said forward Steve McParland, who had a fight of his own in Saturday’s third period. “Utah was a good team to play as well because they battle hard. We played a lot better than I thought we would.”
The Steelheads had seven different goal-scorers in two games, showing some of the scoring depth that Graham was looking forward to this season. That included a myriad of odd-man rushes and quick break opportunities created by the quick-burst skating ability the team showcased.
“It’s by design and it’s good that players are taking notice,” said Graham. “But it’s important for us to maintain that speed. We played 12 forwards in exhibition but now we’ll have ten. We’ll have to shorten the shifts up and continue to move pucks up ice quick. It’ll be interesting to see these first two games.”
The quick-strike ability and smooth transition game of the Steelheads certainly played a role in the team’s five goals scored before the second period was over on Saturday. And while the players were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the chemistry has developed, the objectives of Graham’s game plan are exactly what many of the players were anticipating.
“When coach called me this summer after I had been traded here, he told me we were going to be a fast team. I was preparing myself for that,” said McParland. “I wasn’t shocked, but it was nice to see that the way he wanted to build the team is what he got.”
“It’s fast because he brought in guys who can play at that pace.”
Every player on the roster was circled because of his ability to jump into a fast new system, a point demonstrated by the success of some of the late-comers. Forward Max French and defenseman Shane Hannah both arrived last Friday to join the Steelheads at camp and had to quickly get into the mix for Saturday night’s exhibition. By the end of the preseason finale, French had scored a power play goal and Hanna had an assist with both playing dynamic roles.
“We’ve been playing this game for a lot of years at this point. The different X’s and O’s, we’ve seen a lot of the variations over the years and we know what to expect,” said French. “We go through our pregame skates to get an idea of the systems and tempo, and then it’s about executing. Communication is important.”
Not all players would be able to make the adjustments immediately, but thus far the Steelheads have been adapting quickly. That includes returning players who are seeing a bit more jump in some of the systems they were using last year. At the same time, they are familiarizing themselves with new teammates and doing so at top speed.
“If we’re looking to do things faster, we need to have an intelligent hockey team. You need to be able to make reads quicker and under more distress, and we have to execute faster while moving your feet,” said Graham. “But these are all things we took into consideration in the recruiting process. I think so far guys have done a terrific job of adapting and asking intelligent questions.”
If the Steelheads are learning to make quicker reads, then the Norfolk Admirals will be under similar stress during Friday night’s opener. The Steelheads can’t predict similar success to what they had last weekend, but they know they can still bring the same effort.
“Make mistakes aggressively,” said Graham. “They’re going to happen so let’s not make them sitting back or waiting. Let’s make them aggressively.”