Preview: They Meet Again

It may seem like a stretch to claim a rivalry exists between two teams that never played one another prior to last season. And yet, a furious seven-game playoff series with flying fists and offensive fireworks this past April may have laid the groundwork for just that when Tristan King’s centering pass in overtime of Game 7 banked into the Idaho net and sent the Allen Americans on their way to an eventual Kelly Cup, while the Steelheads season came to an end.

The Steelheads and Americans meet for the first time this season at CenturyLink Arena with the Steelheads looking to build on their success this season and expand what is currently a four point lead on the Americans.

There are storylines galore for the weekend series beyond the simple fact these teams met in the playoffs. The Allen Americans suffered a 7-1 drumming the last time they were in Boise for Game 5 last year, before heading home to win the series’ final two games. Several of Idaho’s leading offensive performers from that series have moved on, but Joe Basaraba remains after he netted seven points in the series against the Americans. Allen returns four of their top five scorers from last year’s playoffs, including leading scorer and reigning MVP Chad Costello.

The Steelheads are stacking points together with an 8-2-1 run, but the Americans have struggled with ups and downs in the first quarter of the season. The two-time defending Kelly Cup champions are a games under .500, but have won two straight following an overtime win in Utah on Wednesday night. Each of Allen’s last two wins has required extra time.

Costello remains the offensive leader for the Americans with six goals and 23 points in 17 games this season. Other scoring threats on the roster have struggled to get going. Former-Steelhead Tristan King has only appeared in seven games this season, returning to the Allen lineup on November 19th after a lengthy absence. Gary Steffes had 45 points last season and 73 the year before, but he currently has just two goals and five assists. Greger Hanson is performing to his usual standards with 17 points in 17 games.

Goaltending has been somewhat of an issue for the Americans. Riley Gill has been strong with 6-3-0 record and a .927 save percentage, coming off a 38-save performance on Wednesday. Rookie Jamie Murray out of Division III Babson College has struggled going 2-6-0 with a 3.78 goals-against average and a .882 save percentage. He was recalled to AHL San Jose prior to Allen’s trip to Idaho.

Eric Roy finished third in the ECHL in scoring among defenseman last season and was off to a strong start this year as well with 12 points in his first 16 games. However, an injury is expected to keep Roy off the ice for the weekend, a significant loss for the Americans.

The Steelheads will look to extend their unbeaten streak to six games with several players rolling offensively. Jefferson Dahl has goals in three straight games and 20 points in his last 14 games. Anthony Luciani has two goals and six points over his last five outings. Will Merchant (five goals) and Brandon Anselmini (seven points) have also been instrumental on driving Idaho’s power play to the top of the ECHL rankings, scoring goals in 13 of 16 games this year.

The weekend series kicks off a five-game home stand for Idaho, who is 5-2-1 at CenturyLink Arena this season. Combining the regular season and playoffs, the Steelheads were 3-1-1 against Allen in Boise last season.

STEELHEAD TO WATCH

The Steelheads have gotten solid offensive contributions from blue-liners Joe Faust and Brandon Anselmini, and another first-year Steelhead is showing signs of joining them. Travis Walsh has two goals and five points in his last seven games, including the tying goal to force overtime last Friday in Norfolk. Walsh has shown more confidence asserting himself at the offensive blue line and jumping into the play in the offensive zone.  With Roy out of the lineup for Allen, the Steelheads may be able to out-gun the Americans form the blue line in this series.

AMERICAN TO WATCH

Certainly the Steelheads will need to monitor Chad Costello, who finished last season with a league-leading 103 points. Costello earned 79 of those points via assists and 40 points on the power play. While Costello continues to produce, that power play that he led last season is not playing to the same league-leading caliber, scoring just five goals this season and ranked 25th in the ECHL. Costello, arguably the best set-up man in the ECHL, has the skill to get that unit and a few of his teammates back on track this weekend.

KEY MATCHUP

The Steelheads league-leading power play against the underperforming man-advantage for the Americans is a battle to follow, but keeping Costello in check will go a long way in ensuring the Steelheads’ success.  With Costello’s skill level, and the degree to which the Americans rely on him at this point of the season, that’s going to mean a lot of ice-time for the Americans captain. Expect him to get a steady dose of Steelheads shutdown defensemen Corbin Baldwin and Charlie Dodero. Baldwin vs Costello was meant to be a marquee matchup of last year’s playoff series, but a Game 1 injury to Baldwin made that storyline moot.  This weekend we get a second opportunity to see one of the league’s best playmakers against one of its best shutdown defenders.