BOISE, Idaho – Another season is in the books for the Idaho Steelheads. And even though they were eliminated in the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row, optimism is much higher heading into the 2019 offseason than it was just a year ago. Let’s take a look back at the 2018-19 regular season and postseason for the westernmost team in the ECHL!
MANY DEPART, FEW REMAIN
After being swept by the Colorado Eagles in round two of the 2018 postseason, the Steelheads needed to make a statement and rebound in 2018-19. With a gutted defensemen corps that only saw the return of Eric Sweetman, the Steelies also had the task of replacing captain Jefferson Dahl and AHL-contracted forwards Brady Brassart, Max French, and Cole Ully. With the goalie situation more than handled by returning netminders Tomas Sholl and Ryan Faragher, Idaho Head Coach Neil Graham filled in the blanks left by his departing skaters.
THE NEW CREW
AHL-caliber forwards like Kale Kessy, Joe Pendenza, Reid Petryk, Kyle Schempp, and the returning Mitch Moroz & Steve McParland anchored the offensive corps to begin the season. Defensemen Keegan Kanzig, Brady Norrish, and Clint Lewis also brought stability on the blue line to start off the year. Forwards Connor Chatham, Alexander Dahl, Justin Parizek, and A.J. White returned to Idaho to further bolster the offense in 2018-19.
Idaho’s AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, provided some help in the way of both wingers and d-men. Forwards Tony Calderone, Brad McClure, Spencer Naas, and Elgin Pearce made appearances for the Steelheads early and often during the season. On the blue line, Nolan Gluchowski and Ondrej Vala assisted the previously mentioned d-men (plus new addition Jeff King, who came over from Fort Wayne on October 17 in exchange for forward Justin Kea).
As they are ought to do historically, the Steelheads stumbled a bit out of the gate to begin the season. They started out the year with a 5-7-2 record (fifth place out of seven teams in the Mountain Division) on November 15. Even before this point in the year (just five games into the season), I was encouraging the Idaho faithful not to panic.
TIME TO TINKER
It was then that Coach Graham began to shuffle roster pieces around. To shore up the defense in front of Sholl, Faragher, and Dallas Stars prospect Colton Point, Graham shipped forwards Jack Nevins and Pendenza to Manchester for defenseman Colton Saucerman on November 13. With White named captain the day after, Idaho began to turn things around. From November 16 until the end of January, the Steelheads lost only seven times (and never in consecutive defeats), compiling a record of 22-7-0.
The wintertime run from Idaho was helped along by rookie forward Robbie Payne. After being assigned to the Steelheads at the beginning of December, Payne spent the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 netting four goals and four assists in nine games played. With two of those goals being game winners, Payne’s mid-season presence was certainly valued beyond measure.
FAMILIAR FACES RETURN
Prior to their blitz in December and January, the Steelies welcomed back defenseman Charlie Dodero from an early season stint in Sweden on December 8. Dodero had played four prior seasons in Idaho, so he was definitely not a stranger to the fans in Boise. A couple months later, hulking forward Henrik Samuelsson also returned to the Steelheads (on February 12) after playing with AHL Rockford for almost exactly a calendar year. To round out a trio of Steelheads alumni coming back to the Treasure Valley, forward Will Merchant was brought back in a trade that sent rookie forward Zach Franko and d-man Lewis to Greenville on March 4.
MAKING PLAYOFF HISTORY
Idaho finished the regular season with a 41-25-4-2 record, good for 88 points and second place behind the Tulsa Oilers in the Mountain Division. Their first round draw turned out to be their closest geographic rival in the Utah Grizzlies. After dropping game one of the divisional semifinal by an abysmal score of 7-1, the Steelheads regrouped and proceeded to win the next four games and advance to the Mountain Division Semifinal. The four Idaho victories came beyond regulation time, marking the first instance in ECHL history a team has won four overtime games in a row to clinch a series.
TUMBLE FACING TULSA
In the second round of the playoffs, Idaho fell to Tulsa in six games after going down three games to none early in the series. Aside from a 1-0 Oilers victory in game three, the three remaining wins for Tulsa were by a score of 3-1. However, the series was much closer than those final scores indicate, as all three games were just one-goal Tulsa leads until late empty-net tallies from the Oilers. Idaho won games four and five at CenturyLink Arena, with captain A.J. White and alternate captain Reid Petryk scoring goals in both affairs.
STEELHEADS SEASON STANDOUTS
2018-19 was a banner year for team leaders A.J. White (16G+35A; plus-17) and Keegan Kanzig (4G+14A, 167 PIMs, plus-30). AHL veterans Reid Petryk (19G+25A) and Kyle Schempp (16G+25A) proved themselves as top-line contributors, as well. This past year also served as great rookie seasons for Nolan Gluchowski (11G+29A), Brad McClure (19G+20A), and Brady Norrish (10G+24A).
Alternate captain Mitch Moroz lended both leadership and toughness in the Steelheads forward corps, netting five goals and 16 assists with 214 PIMs. Power forward Kale Kessy also provided much grit to the Idaho lineup, leading the league in penalty minutes (289) while averaging 0.94 points/game in just 35 games played.
Just like any ECHL team’s regular season, Idaho faced its share of ups and downs. Parizek’s dismissal; the acquisition of Saucerman; and the returns of Dodero, Samuelsson, and Merchant are just a handful of milestone moments for the Steelies in 2018-19. In addition, Idaho continued their tradition of excellence in net with a standout year from Tomas Sholl. Sholl’s regular season (26-12-1, 2.25 GAA, .928 SV%) and postseason (6-5-0, 2.29 GAA, .926 SV%) efforts should earn the Bowling Green product a solid spot in professional hockey for the 2019-20 season.
Coach Graham, in his fourth year behind the Steelheads’ bench, is coming off of his second season in a row where he’s made the second round of the playoffs. Judging by player attitudes and excepts in exit interviews, a good majority of Idaho players are interested in playing in Boise for 2019-20. If the Steelheads can capitalize on a solid number of returning members from this past season’s squad, it could bring invaluable chemistry and camaraderie for the year to come. My prediction? Idaho continues its steady trend as a perennial contender out in the Western Conference, and could very well break through to the conference final in Coach Graham’s fifth head coaching season.
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