Series Preview: Mountain Division Semifinals

The Steelheads will begin their quest for a third Kelly Cup on Friday night at Budweiser Events Center when they suit up for Game 1 of the Mountain Division Semifinals against the Colorado Eagles. The Steelheads and Eagles will meet in the opening round of the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, with the Steelheads taking each of the prior meetings.  Idaho was 6-4-1 during the regular season against the Eagles, and 2-2-1 at Budweiser Events Center.

The Steelheads finished the season on a four-game winning streak, matching a season-high, including an all-time best 238:06 shutout streak. The Eagles had an impressive streak of their own during the season, winning 17 games in a row for the longest winning streak in franchise history and tied for the second-longest winning streak in ECHL history. Idaho defeated the Eagles in the last meeting between the teams, a 3-0 shutout in the Steelheads’ regular season home finale. The night prior, the two teams combined for 116 penalty minutes in a fight-filled affair that proved to be a playoff preview.

Forwards: The Steelheads will encounter three of the league’s top-10 scorers in the first round. Casey Pierro-Zabotel finished second in the league with a career-high 88 points, but he had just two goals and no assists with a minus-7 rating over the final seven games. Matt Garbowsky was one of the league’s most prolific scorers over the second half of the season, posting 28 goals in his final 41 games after netting just eight goals in his first 31. Luke Salazar was also better than a point-per-game with 77 points, and had five goals and eight points in the season’s final ten games. Losing Jesse Mychan and Josh Nicholls during the season certainly could have been a blow to the Eagles, but their offense produced 3.76 goals per game without them which was nearly the same rate. That attack got a lift with the return of Johnny Lazo from a broken leg in late February, and the return of former Steelhead Alex Belzile from AHL San Antonio will make a difference after he recorded ten goals and 27 points in 17 ECHL games.

The Steelheads scored nine goals during their season-ending winning streak when defense took over, but they will dress plenty of punch for Round 1. Jefferson Dahl led the Steelheads with a career-high 66 points on the season, and 22 goals to match his total from a season ago. Linemate Rob Linsmayer was helping Dahl’s climb. He was held off the score sheet in the final three games but had points in nine of the prior ten contests. Anthony Luciani netted 31 goals to become the tenth Steelhead in the ECHL era to crack the 30-goal mark, including goals in each of Idaho’s last two games. The Steelheads had four players finish with at least 20 goals, including standout rookie Will Merchant and his 48 points. Joe Basaraba finished with 21 goals, and tied for the team scoring lead during last year’s playoffs with three goals and seven points in seven games.

Defense: As they do up front, the Eagles blue line puts up points as well as any in the league. Colorado boasts the ECHL’s leading scorer among defensemen, as Matt Register led ECHL defensemen with 64 points and ranked second with 18 goals. The second barrel of Colorado’s blue line assault, Jake Marto ranked third in the ECHL with 56 points. The Eagles blue line also offers experience, with Sean Zimmerman just finishing his tenth full professional season and preparing for his fifth consecutive post-season. Michael Sdao, playing his first season in the ECHL after three full seasons in the AHL, put up nine goals and 177 penalty minutes in 61 games.

The Steelheads saw a record-setting year from Joe Faust in his first season in Boise. Faust enjoyed a breakout season with 14 goals, more than any other Steelheads defenseman in ECHL history, and also became the fourth Steelhead in the ECHL era to crack the 40-point plateau. Faust’s 14 goals and 41 points were more than he scored in four seasons of college and his first two years of pro hockey combined. Elsewhere on the blue line, Corbin Baldwin was again the Steelheads’ best shutdown man with a plus-10 rating while skating in all 72 games. Two additions to the back-end have also fit right in, with Justin Hache providing a physical presence alongside Baldwin and Aaron Harstad recording 13 points in 20 games with Idaho and a plus-13 rating. Charlie Dodero was a plus-9 over Idaho’s final 13 contests.

Goaltending: The Steelheads will feel mighty confident between the pipes heading into the playoffs, especially since they were 3:57 shy of finishing the regular season with four consecutive shutout wins. The Steelheads did earn three shutouts in that span, two from Branden Komm and another from Landon Bow, putting together the team’s longest shutout streak in the ECHL era. Komm had a personal shutout streak of 180:49 as he won his 19th game in the season finale to polish off his best professional season. Landon Bow was a standout rookie between the pipes, so much so that he was named to the All-Rookie Team. He led the league in goals-against average and finished second in save percentage while going 19-6-3.

There will be questions for the Eagles to answer in net over the next two weeks. The Eagles relied on Clarke Saunders for much of the season, but Saunders was summoned to AHL San Antonio in late March after posting career-bests with 28 wins, a 2.60 goals-against average, and a .903 save percentage. Saunders may return to the fold, but for now the Eagles appear to be going with Kent Simpson and Lukas Hafner. Simpson experienced an up-and-down year, dropping three of his last four starts to go 9-9-1, as well as an 0-5-1 record this year against the Steelheads. Hafner was a pleasant surprise for the Eagles, going 7-1-2 with a .933 save percentage despite just ten games with the Eagles and Alaska Aces this season. Hafner won a game for Colorado on March 31st at CenturyLink Arena.

Special Teams: In last year’s playoffs, the Steelheads second-ranked power play lost the battle against the top-ranked Allen American power play. We’ll see a similar battle again this year with the Steelheads’ kill once again ranked second and Colorado’s man-advantage ranked second. The Steelheads’ penalty kill rolls into post-season play  having killed 28-of-29 over their last ten games, including going 7-for-8 against the Eagles at CenturyLink Arena in late March. The Eagles power play was 1-for-18 in the final six games of the season.

The Steelheads will look for a bit more opportunity on their own man-advantage, ranked second for much of the year but sinking to seventh before the finale. Idaho had only four power play chances over the final three games, but are 6-for-29 in the last nine contests. The Eagles finished the season ranked tenth on the kill, but more impressive than their percentage are their league-leading 20 shorthanded goals.

Swing Factor: The final three meetings of the season demonstrated what we can likely expect over the course of a seven-game series. Colorado ranked second in the ECHL this season with 1,415 penalty minutes, with Darryl Bootland and Teigan Zahn both finishing with over 200 penalty minutes and both finishing in the top-five at their position in minor penalties. Of their 1,415 minutes in the box, 827 of them came at home. The Eagles play a rough-and-tumble game, more so in their own building, and the Steelheads’ showed in March that they can counter that. Both teams have tremendous skill and play-making ability, and Idaho demonstrated over the past six games that they are capable of suffocating that speed game. When frustration kicks in and the game devolves to a grudge match, as fans saw in Boise on March 31st, which team will have the composure to come away with power play opportunities? Players like Corbin Baldwin, Justin Hache, and Brandon Anselmini will have roles to play in the tone-setting, but after that will the Steelheads be able to turn Colorado’s aggression into man-advantage situations, and will they be able to make the Eagles pay?