It is true that “playoff experience” is a valuable commodity at this time of year, and the Steelheads do have that experience with six players returning from last year’s playoff roster that battled the Allen Americans and eight players that have appeared in a playoff game for Idaho. At the same time, there surely can also be value placed on the excitement and energy that comes with a player’s first playoff shift, first playoff goal, first playoff win.
The Steelheads’ roster heading into Friday night’s Game 1 of the Mountain Division Semifinals in Loveland will boast 128 combined games of pro playoff experience. It will also feature nine players getting their first taste of professional playoff hockey. That’s not surprising for five of them- rookies Will Merchant, Connor Chatham, Rhett Holland, Brandon Anselmini, and Landon Bow- just wrapping up their first pro seasons. Others on this roster have waited a bit longer for the chance to play for a Kelly Cup.
Defenseman Aaron Harstad finished just his second pro season last week, but still had to go from Tulsa to Norfolk to Idaho for a chance at the dance. Kellan Lain joined the AHL’s Chicago Wolves at the end of the 2012-13 season and has played in 167 professional games, but his first playoff contest will come this weekend. It’s been 156 pro games for Bryce Van Brabant and 179 for Justin Hache, all in the regular season until now.
“There’s some excitement, especially playing with the group of guys that we have here. We all get along really well and have fun coming to the rink every day,” said Lain. “To be able to play in these games and try to make a run with them will be a lot of fun.”
Of course they are not all entirely foreign to post-season experience in their hockey careers. Hache played in 24 playoff games over three seasons in the QMJHL and won a Memorial Cup in 2012 with Shawinigan. Van Brabant played in the National Championship game for Quinnipiac University in 2013 and twice was in the NCAA tournament.
While time has passed between then and now, those high-pressure situations offered important learning experiences that will apply to this weekend.
“Every game means something and every little mistake or detail in the game makes a big difference,” said Van Brabant. “In the regular season a puck bouncing over your stick against a weaker team may not go in the net, but here if you’re not in the right spot it can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Despite the raised stakes, Van Brabant knows that the mindset that made the Steelheads a 43-win team in the regular season doesn’t need to change.
“We play mini three-game series all season long so it feels like an extension of that. We’ve seen the Eagles before and we played them for three games just a couple of weeks ago,” said Van Brabant. “So it’s the same mentality with perhaps a bit more intensity, possibly playing seven.”
Whether they possess pro experience or not, every player has something they can draw on that will help them zone in for the upcoming task of winning 16 games to win a Kelly Cup. For some that motivation extends further back than even their college days.
“Back in high school we made a big playoff run and the big thing in high school is going to [Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota] and playing in front of 18,000 fans,” said Merchant, a former Eagan High standout coming off a 21-goal rookie season with the Steelheads. “It’s exciting as a young kid and that stays with you during your career.”
Every player insists that continuing the same habits and work practices from the regular season will be a key to post-season success. That makes sense, since the Steelheads have been working towards a Kelly Cup since October. That mindset also ensures that leaders during the regular season will be looked to for leadership again in the playoffs, whether they’ve played one playoff game, 20 playoff games, or none.
“I’ve been around the game for a while now,” said Lain, one of only two Steelheads along with Bryce Van Brabant that have NHL experience. “I like to be able to help keep everyone focused and to take one game at a time. It’s a seven-game series and we can’t get too strung up on the results of the first couple games. It’s a long road to get to where we want to be.”
The first step along that road will be Friday night at Budweiser Events Center. With a handful of players ready to embark on the journey for the first time, there are no butterflies and there is no anxiety. There is puck-drop a long time in the making.