Series Preview: Mountain Division Final

For the second straight year, the fourth time in six years, and the final time ever, the Idaho Steelheads and Colorado Eagles will meet in post-season play as the division rivals clash in the Mountain Division Final. The Steelheads look to avenge their loss to the Eagles in the first round of last year’s U.S. Bank Kelly Cup Playoffs, a loss that launched the Eagles towards their first Kelly Cup championship.

The Steelheads fought their way into the second round of the playoffs with an historic comeback in the Mountain Division Semifinals, overcoming a 3-0 series deficit to rattle off four straight victories against the Allen Americans. Idaho is just the second team in ECHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, the other being the 2010 Kelly Cup champion Cincinnati Cyclones. The Steelheads also dealt the Americans just their second playoff series loss, and first in the first round, during the Steve Martinson era.

The Eagles finished the regular season atop the Mountain Division for the second time in the last three years, enjoying their best regular season and finishing six points ahead of Idaho in the standings with 102 points. The Eagles hope to defend the Kelly Cup in their final ECHL season, as they will move to the American Hockey League next season. They accomplished the first step in that quest, defeating the Wichita Thunder in six games in their first-round series.

The Steelheads went 7-4-1 against the Eagles during regular-season play, but the teams have not met since February 17th. That date marked the end of a stretch that may have served as a playoff rehearsal, as the teams faced off nine times in a stretch of 12 games while battling for positioning at the top of the division. The Eagles swept the first three games, but the Steelheads would take five of the next six. That included a three-game sweep at Budweiser Events Center when the Eagles had up to that point lost only one game all season on home ice in regulation.

The Steelheads have won two of three playoff series against the Colorado Eagles, winning first-round matchups in 2013 and 2014 that lasted six games and dropping last year’s Mountain Division Semifinals in five games. Now in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the Steelheads’ last series win prior to their comeback against Allen came against the Eagles.

 

Forwards

The Steelheads’ first-round resurrection against Allen was in part because of a rededication to defense, but several of Idaho’s skilled scorers had an awakening of their own in Games 4 through 7 to fuel the comeback. Cole Ully led the Steelheads in scoring during the first round with seven points in seven games, as he and linemate Max French both notched three-point performances in Game 6 to extend the series. In Game 7, the trio of Brady Brassart, Steve McParland, and Tommy Thompson took over. Thompson scored his first pro playoff goal, McParland registered two assists, and Brassart recorded a three-point game.

Captain Jefferson Dahl returned to the lineup for Game 3 and notched a goal and four points in five games of the series, also reprising his role as agitator against the Americans. Rookie Justin Parizek had six points in seven games during his first playoff action, but he did leave Game 7 midway through the third period injured.

The Eagles finished the season ranked second in the ECHL in scoring and boasted the league’s most dangerous goal-scorer in Michael Joly. Joly had 41 goals in only 52 games for the Eagles, nine of them coming in 12 games against Idaho, leading the ECHL and six more than runner-up Justin Taylor scored in 62 games for Kalamazoo. Joly put up two goals and six points in the first round against the Thunder.

JC Beaudin led the way offensively for the Eagles against Wichita with four goals and seven points, earning at least a point in five of the six games and scoring the shorthanded overtime winner in Game 1. Beaudin had 27 points in 30 regular season games, bouncing between Colorado and AHL San Antonio, including ten points in eight games against Idaho.

The Steelheads have not seen Matt Garbowsky since early November, the 2017 All-Star MVP injured for a month during the ‘super-series’ between the teams this year. Garbowsky did average better than a point-per-game this season again despite his time missed, and he grabbed a goal and an assist in Game 6 against the Thunder.

Four Steelheads forwards averaged better than a point-per-game against Colorado this year.

 

Defense

The Steelheads struggled to keep David Makowski off the sheet last series with Allen, the runner-up for Defenseman of the Year collecting four goals and seven points to lead the Americans in scoring. Now Idaho must deal with the man who finished first in Defenseman of the Year voting for the second straight year, Eagles blue-liner Matt Register.

Register led ECHL defensemen in scoring again this year with 17 goals and 65 points while playing in all 72 games. He continued into the playoffs with seven assists in six games.

While Register overshadows some of his counterparts on the blue-line, the Eagles are far from a one-man show on the back end. Collin Bowman had a strong first round with two goals and five points in six games. The Eagles also have one of the top rookie defensemen in All-Star Cliff Watson, whom they acquired in a trade from Utah during the second half of the season. Watson was quiet in Round 1 with just one assist,   but he finished his first pro season with 12 goals and 30 points in 44 games.

Idaho’s youth on the back end stood out against the Americans. Shane Hanna’s arrival from AHL Texas prior to Game 4 could be viewed as a turning point in the series, and he made his presence felt with a two-goal performance in Game 6. Eric Sweetman posted four points in seven games in his first playoff action.

Corbin Baldwin and Charlie Dodero were key in a shutdown role in Round 1, with Dodero a plus-4 and the duo holding the Americans to just two power play goals in seven games. Aaron Harstad and Joe Faust provided the offense from the back end early in the series, with Harstad scoring two goals and Faust tallying five points to lead all Idaho defensemen.

 

Goaltending

The Idaho crease unquestionably belongs to Philippe Desrosiers after he rattled off four straight wins against the Americans. After dropping the series-opener, Desrosiers came into Game 3 in relief of Tomas Sholl and played the game’s final 28:25. From the moment he entered Game 3 until the final buzzer of Game 7, Desrosiers surrendered just seven goals and played to a 1.57 goals-against average and a .954 save percentage. Desrosiers owns the fifth-best save percentage in the playoffs.

Joe Cannata seemed well in control between the pipes initially for the Eagles, winning the first three games of the series but faltering in the final three games. Cannata gave up five goals in the first three games while facing a total of 60 shots (.917 save percentage), but he was shelled for four goals on 16 shots in Game 4 and pulled from the contest.  He then gave up five goals on 17 shots in Game 5.

The Eagles went to Lukas Hafner to start Game 6, the goaltender who came out of nowhere to lead the Eagles to the Kelly Cup last season, before reinserting Cannata to start the second period and ultimately close out the series.

Cannata finished the regular season with a 21-5-2 record, along with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage, finishing fourth in Goaltender of the Year voting.

 

Special Teams

The Idaho special teams advantage over the Americans in the first round was stark, and certainly a factor in helping the Steelheads climb out of their 3-0 hole. The Steelheads scored six power play goals in the series, at least one in five of the seven contests, and clicking at 18.8 percent to rank fourth in the playoffs. Max French led the Steelheads with three power play goals, including two scored while Idaho was up 5-on-3. The Steelheads drew three two-man advantages in the series that were each over a minute long. On the kill, Idaho surrendered just two goals in the series and executed at 91.7 percent, third-best in the post-season.

The Eagles’ power play was second-ranked in the first round, scoring five goals and clicking at 19.2 percent. The Eagles had five different power play goal-scorers against the Thunder, but none came from arguably their most lethal power play weapons. Joly finished the year tied for third in the ECHL with 12 power play goals, while Register was tied for third among defensemen with 22 power play points.

Colorado’s penalty kill was fifth-best in the league during the regular season and ranked second with 13 shorthanded goals. Against Wichita they surrendered three power play goals in 25 kills and scored one shorthanded goal.

 

Swing Factor

Players and coaches alike will always say that a new playoff round is a clean slate, and that the struggles or successes of previous rounds must be left in the past. There is certainly truth to that, but the reality is that the Steelheads just pulled off one of the great comebacks in professional hockey history. While coming back from 3-0 down could be exhausting, both physically and emotionally, most Steelheads players have described their state as one of rejuvenation. The Steelheads now truly don’t believe they are out of any game or series until the final buzzer, and they have the results to prove it.

On the other side, the Eagles nearly found themselves on the opposite side of the same narrative. After winning the first three games of their series with Wichita, Colorado was blown out in Game 4 and lost Game 5 on home ice in overtime. The Eagles and Thunder were still tied with four minutes left in Game 6.

Will the lessons learned by both teams through peaks and valleys in Round 1 play a role in the early games of Round 2? And can the defensive adjustments the Steelheads made to shut down Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Bryan Moore also be applied to Michael Joly and JC Beaudin?