Series Preview: Mountain Division Semifinals

The Steelheads and Allen Americans kick off the Mountain Division Semifinal at CenturyLink Arena on Friday night, the second time in three seasons that the pair will meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Americans emerged victorious in 2016 in a fierce series that went to overtime of Game 7, with Tristan King’s winner pushing the fourth-seeded Americans past the fifth-seeded Steelheads on their way to their second consecutive Kelly Cup championship. This time around, the Steelheads have home ice advantage for the first time since 2015 and look to escape the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 post-season.

Both teams met for a playoff preview during the final weekend of the season, with the Americans earning a comeback overtime victory in Game 71 and the Steelheads responding with their 44th win of the season in Game 72. The Steelheads went 5-3-2 against Allen this year, compared to a 5-4-1 record for the Americans in the season series. Idaho rolls into the playoffs after going 9-0-1 over the season’s final ten games.

The Americans finished the season going 4-4-2 in their final ten games. Unlike in years past, the Americans had to wait until the penultimate day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth. While the Steelheads look to snap a string of first-round losses, this newer cast of Americans hopes to avoid the first first-round ouster for Allen since 2012 when they were in the CHL era, a loss immediately followed by the hiring of Steve Martinson behind the bench. Since then, the Americans have won two CHL titles and two Kelly Cups. Their second-round playoff loss to Colorado last year snapped a streak of four consecutive championship seasons and 15 consecutive playoff series victories.

Forwards 

Despite the plethora of playoff success for the Americans in recent history, it is a very different squad rolling into Boise for Friday’s Game 1. Gone are former star scoring threats like two-time league MVP Chad Costello, as well as Gary Steffes and Gregor Hanson. The impact of those departures were clear this year for the Americans who went from second in the league in scoring, averaging 4.08 goal per game a year ago, to tenth this season averaging 3.26. The Steelheads finished seventh in the league in scoring, but lifted their production in a big way over the final month of the season.

While Idaho averaged 3.39 goals per game this year, they averaged 3.7 during their season-ending unbeaten streak and scored four goals or more in each of their final seven contests. Linemates Max French and Cole Ully led the way down the stretch, with French finishing the season on an eight-game points streak (9-5-14) and Ully notching six multi-point games in his final seven outings (9-3-12).

The emergence of the French-Ully combination gave support to the line that has arguably been Idaho’s best this season- the combination of Steve McParland, Justin Parizek, and Team MVP Brady Brassart. Brassart had his best pro season, leading Idaho with 1.08 points per game and finishing the season with points in seven of his last eight games (2-8-10). McParland led the Steelheads with 31 goals, tied for tenth in the league, and brings playoff experience after helping take the South Carolina Stingrays to a Kelly Cup Final last season. Parizek finished the season with 60 points, second on the team and second among ECHL rookies. Parizek’s points total was the highest by a Steelheads rookie since Kael Mouillierat in 2010-11.

Arguably no player in the series has better playoff experience than Allen’s Casey Pierro-Zabotel. The ninth-year pro has won Kelly Cups each of the last two years with two different teams, and therefore was also a member of the Americans team that bounced the Steelheads in the first round in 2016. Pierro-Zabotel didn’t play at the same level that placed him second in MVP voting a year ago, but he still had a terrific season finishing sixth in the league with 69 points.

Alex Guptill was among Allen’s most consistent goal scorers after coming over in a trade in mid-December, netting 20 goals and 43 points in 48 games in Allen. Bryan Moore has 99 points in 101 games over the last two seasons with Allen, and had six goals in five playoff games last season. Zach Pochiro missed significant time this season due to injury, but finished with 41 points in 42 games and with eight points in his last eight contests.

The Americans will likely place heavy stock in some late-season rookie additions. Mathieu Foget, Braylon Shmyr, and Jared Bethune all joined Allen in the final weeks from Canadian junior hockey and all made an impact. Bethune had five assists in nine games after coming over from Prince George, and Foget netted the overtime winner to send Allen to the playoffs during his pro debut following his final OHL season in Mississauga. Shmyr put up four points in nine games, including a three-point night with a goal and an assist against Idaho last Friday.

Defense 

The Steelheads finished the season fourth in goals-against per game (2.61) and third in shots-against per game (28.36). The Steelheads bring back considerable experience on the back end, with Corbin Baldwin gearing up for his third post-season with the Steelheads and Charlie Dodero set for his third as well. Dodero missed considerable time this year, starting the season late as he recovered from an off-season procedure and also hit with two suspensions this year, but he still matched his best pro season with 19 points to mirror his rookie total in 2013-14.

Eric Sweetman was named the Steelheads top defenseman and has been among the league’s best rookie blue-liners. Sweetman netted four goals and had seven points over the last ten games, finishing the season ranked eighth in rookie scoring and tied for second in plus/minus. Sweetman started slow in his first pro season with three assists and a minus-3 rating in his first 21 games. Over the final 44 outings, Sweetman totaled ten goals, 24 points, and a plus-19 rating.

The back end has star-power and name recognition for the Americans. David Makowski was named First-Team All-ECHL for the second consecutive season and also placed second in voting for Defenseman of the Year to Colorado’s Matt Register for the second straight season. Makowksi had 54 points in 58 games, second among ECHL defensemen and tops in points per game. Close behind him was captain Joel Chouinard, who finished fourth in the scoring race among defensemen after leading the league in plus/minus with Allen in 2016-17. Despite some impressive offensive numbers form the blue line, the Americans did finish 15th in the league in goals-against and surrendered 36.25 shots per game, 23rd in the league and last in the Mountain Division. Idaho outshot Allen 96-42 over the season’s final weekend.

Goaltending

Idaho stole plenty of headlines in the season’s final month with Tomas Sholl taking the ECHL by storm. Sholl started the season in the SPHL and got some opportunities with Adirondack. He took the reins between the pipes for Idaho after he was acquired for cash considerations and he never looked back, twice earning Goaltender of the Week honors and grabbing Goaltender of the Month honors for March while going  9-0-2 as a Steelhead with a 1.24 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage. Overall, Sholl went undefeated in regulation in 19 ECHL appearances this season.

The Steelheads turned to Sholl when Philippe Desrosiers was recalled to AHL Texas. Earlier this week, Desrosiers was sent back to Boise, giving Head Coach Neil Graham a tough decision in the crease and a strong 1-2 punch. The third-year pro had his best season with Idaho, going 23-9-3 with the Steelheads with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage and tying for fifth in the league in wins.

The only team in the ECHL who may not fear Sholl is the Americans, who faced him twice and won twice with both games going beyond regulation. Allen was also the only team to score more than three goals in a game against Sholl this season.

Another area where familiarity will be lacking for Allen, Riley Gill has been out since October and the potential Hall of Famer will remain on injured reserve throughout the playoffs. Jake Paterson appears to be the go-to guy in net for Allen after going 9-4-1 with the Americans following stints in Norfolk and Quad City to start the year. While his numbers for the year don’t sparkle, Paterson does have playoff experience and some great performances against Idaho this year. In four starts against the Steelheads- one with Norfolk- Paterson has stopped at least 40 shots in every one for a total of 180 stops on 193 shots against and two wins.

Special Teams

The loss of Costello, Hansen, and Steffes certainly put a dent in the Allen power play, which was 15th in the ECHL this year after finishing in the top-3 in each of their first three ECHL seasons. They’ll face a Steelheads penalty kill that also took a small step back this year, finishing ninth after being ranked second in each of the last two seasons. Allen’s kill ranks 20th.

The Steelheads will want to shut down the points against the Allen man-advantage. Chouinard tied for third in the ECHL with 23 points on the power play, eight of them goals. Makowski had 22 power play points in only 58 games, and Eric Roy scored seven of his 14 goals this season with the man-advantage. The Steelheads top power play unit for much of the season centered around the McParland-Brassart-Parizek line, with the trio combining for 25 of Idaho’s 57 power play goals this season (43.9 percent).

Whether or not we see a feisty series still appears to be very much in the air. The teams combined for 244 penalty minutes, eight 10-minute misconducts, and four game misconducts in a pair of games in late November. They combined for just 16 penalty minutes in the final two games of the season.

Swing Factor 

With the two teams fairly evenly matched during the regular season, both of these teams may be looking at what reinforcements could join them over the course of a long series. A look at each team’s Playoff Eligible List- players currently on AHL rosters that are eligible for ECHL playoff competition- shows several players that could make a big impact. Of course the Steelheads expect to get their captain and leading scorer back in Jefferson Dahl when AHL Cleveland wraps up their season. Dahl has two goals and four points in four games in his first taste of AHL action. He also had three goals and eleven points in eight games against Allen this year and helped stir some of the early season animosity.

The Steelheads could also see one of their better puck-moving defensemen during the year in Shane Hanna. Henrik Samuelsson remains in AHL Rockford, where he has earned an AHL deal by notching nine goals and 12 points in 23 AHL games.

Vincent Arseneau is the quintessential power forward for the Americans, and he has been with AHL Utica since mid-March in his second AHL stint of the year. Arseneau scored three goals in five games against Idaho, and fans will remember him for his hit on Baldwin in Game 1 of the 2016 series that ended the defenseman’s post-season. Colby McAuley and Alex Schoenborn are both with AHL San Jose, but could return to Allen soon with the Barracuda currently outside the AHL playoff picture.