The Steelheads have won back-to-back games heading into the weekend, as they prepare for the Wichita Thunder to make their first ever visit to CenturyLink Arena with the two teams knotted in the Mountain Division standings.
The Mountain Division is well represented in the ECHL power picture, with the top three teams in the division also representing the top three seeds in the Western Conference and all three squads within two points of one another. The Colorado Eagles lead the pack, with Wichita and Idaho right behind them in a tie for second.
The Steelheads drew even with the Thunder, who do still own second place due to tie-breakers, with Wednesday night’s 5-2 victory over the Rapid City Rush. The Thunder are coming off a 4-3 loss in Colorado, the team in the midst of its first three-game losing streak this season.
The history between the Steelheads and Thunder is limited, with just two prior meetings in their past. The Steelheads visited INTRUST Bank Arena in February of 2016 and split a pair with the Thunder, both overtime decisions, in a season when the Thunder finished last in the ECHL standings.
This is now a very different Thunder team, which led the Conference until December 9th. Much of that success was achieved outside of divisional play, with the Thunder going 10-2-2 against teams in the Central Division. The Thunder have gone 6-3-0 against Mountain Division opponents this year.
Former Steelhead Travis Ewanyk has been among the scoring leaders for the Thunder, notching a goal and an assist on Wednesday in Colorado to give him eight goals and 17 points on the season. Ewanyk has three goals and ten points in his last nine contests.
2010 Montreal Canadiens draft pick Mark MacMillan leads the Thunder with 11 goals and 19 points, but he’s been limited to just one goal over his last five contests. Greg Chase and Matt DeBlouw have stepped up to bolster the scoring, with Chase recording ten points in the last eleven games and DeBlouw netting five goals over the last six.
Former Allen Americans goaltender Joel Rumpel may be on pace for his best season, sporting a 9-2-0 record along with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. He’s won six of his last seven decisions.
The Steelheads have won seven of their past nine games, with Steve McParland helping to fuel the offense. McParland has three goals over the last two games, and five in his last nine. Tommy Thompson has been a welcome addition to the lineup for McParland since returning from AHL Texas, setting up a McParland goal in each game since his return.
Henrik Samuelsson earned a three-point game on Wednesday with a goal and two assists, giving him five points in his last six games.
The Steelheads lose some scoring power from the blue line after Shane Hanna’s recall to AHL Texas, but Joe Faust did score his first goal of the season on Wednesday and Cody Corbett is now tied for the league lead with 11 power play assists.
The Steelheads and Thunder both enter the series with strong power play units, with Idaho ranking seventh in the league and Wichita ranking third. Although they have capitalized on 21.4 percent of their power play opportunities, they have only earned 70 power play chances this season, eight fewer than any other team in the ECHL. The Steelheads have been shorthanded 134 times this season, ten more than any other team in the league.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
Tommy Thompson and Steve McParland have gelled together well over the past two games and create opportunities not only for each other, but also for the third man on that line. On Wednesday night that was Connor Chatham, who did not register a point but did log three shots on goal and had several scoring chances in close against Rapid City’s Adam Vay. The Steelheads have been without several significant contributors up front for the last few games, with Jefferson Dahl out since December 2nd and Mitch Moroz leaving last Saturday’s game injured. Though the Steelheads hope to have players return this weekend, Chatham is one of the forwards who is being asked to ramp up his production in their absence. Chatham is averaging 3.5 shots per game in his last five contests.
THUNDER TO WATCH
Travis Ewanyk and Mark MacMillan have gotten off to great starts offensively this season, but the Thunder do boast a deep lineup with six players on the current roster averaging .70 points per game or better. One player whose best hockey may still be yet to come is former-Grizzly Ralph Cuddemi, who started the season with the Fort Wayne Komets but has five points in ten games since joining the Thunder. Cuddemi has four goals and five points in his last six contests and was strong last year against the Steelheads when he was with Utah, netting two goals and five points in seven games and an overtime winner.
Wednesday’s game against the Rush showed what a difference Tommy Thompson’s return makes for the Steelheads, particularly on the game’s second goal when he and Steve McParland sliced through the Rapid City defense for a 2-on-1 goal. Thompson’s return adds speed to the center position and gave the Steelheads the upper hand controlling the middle of the ice, something the Thunder will have to counter. Travis Ewanyk may draw part of that assignment, his offensive numbers impressive but his physicality and defensive work serving as two of the elements that have made him a successful pro. Wichita coach Malcom Cameron will be looking for someone down the middle who can slow Thompson off the rush and also keep him pinned in his own end. It’ll be a challenge but one Wichita can manage. They are third in the league defensively, their 2.61 goals-against per game just slightly better than Idaho’s 2.65.