Preview: Melee at Maverik Center

After grabbing four out of six points against the Wheeling Nailers on home ice, the Steelheads are back on the road this week for their final three meetings of the season against the Utah Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have had the better of the season series thus far, going 7-1-0 against Idaho this season and taking all three games from the series at CenturyLink Arena at the beginning of February. The Steelheads will look to defend and extend a five point lead over the Grizzlies in the Mountain Division standings, with Utah on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in.

The Grizzles are one of the ECHL’s hottest teams, with nine wins in their last ten games and seven wins in their last eight appearances at Maverik Center.

Erik Bradford is riding a ten-game points streak that began on January 16th, when the Steelheads last played at Maverik Center. Bradford has five goals and 15 points during that streak. Leading goal-scorer Ralph Cuddemi, who scored twice for Utah in their comeback overtime win at CenturyLink Arena on February 4th, has five goals and 12 points in his last ten games. He hasn’t gone consecutive games without at least a point since December 15th.

Jon Puskar has five goals and 11 points against the Steelheads this season, but has not scored a goal in his last eight games. Colin Martin has nine goals in his last ten contests.

The Steelheads got a big night from Anthony Luciani in their Saturday night win over the Nailers, with Luciani grabbing Idaho’s first hat trick and first four-point game this season. Luciani had four goals and seven points during Idaho’s home stand. Joe Faust has six points in his last seven games, his 12 goals ranked third among ECHL defensemen. Bryce Van Brabant scored his first goal as a Steelhead late in the third period on Saturday night, capping off a two point performance.

On the back end, Corbin Baldwin has a goal and two assists, along with a plus-6 rating, over his last five contests. Goaltender Landon Bow is 9-1-1 in his last 11 appearances.

The Steelheads have not won in their three visits to Maverik Center this season. They were 5-1-0 in Utah during the 2015-16 campaign.

The Steelheads hope to expand their lead over not only the Grizzlies this week, but also the Alaska Aces. Alaska is in fourth place in the division, two points behind Idaho but with three games in hand. The Aces are also three points clear of Utah for the final playoff berth. The Aces host the Colorado Eagles for three games this week, the Eagles winners of nine in a row.

STEELHEAD TO WATCH

Bryce Van Brabant wasn’t the only players to get his first Steelheads point on Saturday. Aaron Harstad picked up an assist on David Glen’s goal in the third period, that point supporting a plus-2 rating. The Grizzlies showed off a deep scoring attack on their last visit to CenturyLink Arena and Harstad will be counted on to play heavy minutes in both a shutdown role and to use his puck moving ability to counter that Utah rush. The best way the Steelheads can keep Bradford and Cuddemi quiet is to spend less time in their own zone than they did in the last series. Harstad’s smooth skating and strong first pass will be big factors in achieving that, in addition to what he’s capable of at the offensive blue line.

GRIZZLY TO WATCH

The Steelheads are already aware of what they can expect from the likes of Cuddemi, Bradford, and Michael Pelech. On Friday night they will get their first look at Erik Higby since October 15th. Higby is back after missing nearly two months due to injury. Higby has a goal and an assist in three games back in the lineup to give him nine goals and 13 points in 26 games this season. That’s after netting 14 goals for the Grizzlies last season. Higby registered one assist against Idaho earlier this year, but was held scoreless by the Steelheads in ten meetings last year.
KEY MATCHUP

The head-to-head speed battle of Anthony Luciani against Erik Bradford will be worth the price of admission throughout the weekend. Luciani’s hat trick Saturday was just a few games removed from a 12-game points streak and Bradford currently has a point in ten straight contests. Bradford took over games in the last series between these teams with his speed through the neutral zone, creating odd-man opportunities and finishing them off. Luciani took over Saturday’s game in a similar fashion, and Head Coach Neil Graham has commented on Luciani’s speed on the backcheck being a key to Idaho’s transition attack. The Grizzlies proved earlier this month that they are one of the few teams in the ECHL who can go toe-to-toe with the Steelheads in the transition speed game. If Idaho cannot slow them down then they will have to better them, and Luciani will be relied on to set the pace.