The Mountain Division Semifinals will move to Boise on Wednesday night with Game 3 at CenturyLink Arena. Though the venue will change from last weekend’s hard-fought first two games, the Steelheads expect their attitudes and their mindsets to stay very much the same.
Idaho is in favorable position after earning a split of the series’ first two battles, both tightly-contested games with little margin for error. The Steelheads earned the victory in Game 1 with a 4-2 effort, a one-goal game until Brian Nugent’s empty-netter in the final minute. Game 2 was another one-goal decision, with the Colorado Eagles grabbing the game-winner in overtime from defenseman Matt Register.
The close scores have been a product of good goaltending from rookie Landon Bow, but it’s also due to a tight-checking style the Steelheads have stuck to and perfected as far back as mid-March.
“Everyone is buying in, all five guys on the ice buying in to the defensive side of the puck,” said Assistant Coach Everett Sheen, who played in the playoffs for the Eagles last spring and now runs the defensive side of the Steelheads’ bench. “That’s huge when you have guys buying in to taking away time and space and keeping to the defensive side of the puck. It’s huge that everyone is committing to it.”
That dedication has been a 200-foot job. Both teams have made the neutral zone impassable through the first two games of the series, and the Steelheads have done tremendous work blocking shots in their own zone. Both teams had their share of puck-possession on Saturday night at Budweiser Events Center, and yet only 19 Colorado shots made their way through to Bow.
The Steelheads have also done a very strong job thus far keeping some of Colorado’s best offensive producers in check. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, Matt Garbowsky, and Luke Salazar all finished in the top-10 in the ECHL in scoring this season, and Pierro-Zabotel notched four goals and 11 points against Idaho during the regular season. While Garbowsky and Pierro-Zabotel each earned secondary assists in Game 2 and Salazar grabbed an assist on Register’s overtime winner, the Steelheads have largely kept the trio in check and limited them to just seven shots on goal combined through two nights.
“The system is working, but those guys are dynamic players and you always have to be aware of them when they’re on the ice,” said Sheen. “That’s what playoff hockey allows, a bit more focus on individual guys because you’re seeing the same team day in and day out.”
That system that’s done the job for two games is what Idaho has perfected, and it certainly has produced results. The Steelheads haven’t surrendered more than two goals in a game since March 31st. There’s room to maneuver within those systems, however, as the Eagles make their own adjustments throughout the series. The Steelheads will also tinker as they try to open more room against an Eagles team that hasn’t given them much room to operate with either.
“Both teams have a system in place and a structure that they want to play. For the most part you don’t want to deviate from it, but it is necessary in a seven-game series that if they make an adjustment then we’ll make an adjustment, and if they’re shutting us down in one aspect then we’ll have to evolve to deal with it,” said Sheen. “At this time of year, our system is in place and our guys know it, and we’re committed to it.”
Another aspect of playoff hockey is moving on. The Steelheads did nearly everything right in Game 2, and a talented Colorado team that knows how to win did just that. A late power play goal from former Steelhead Alex Belzile and a blast just barely into overtime sent the Steelheads home tied 1-1 rather than wielding a 2-0 lead. Now as the Steelheads look to take a firm hold on the series with three games on Front Street, they’ll need to move past their first frustrating finish of the playoffs.
“Any game in playoffs, it’s important to turn the page because it’s over with and you still have to win your four games. It was a tough loss because we played well, but at the same time its playoff hockey. We have to make sure we bounce back and learn from the last game to get better.”
The series takes the Boise stage for the first time on Wednesday, and the Steelheads won’t mind if they find themselves in a one-goal game in the third period once again. They have been molding themselves for weeks, if not months, for just that kind of hockey.