BOISE, Idaho – In their final home game of the regular season, the Idaho Steelheads hosted the Utah Grizzlies Friday night at CenturyLink Arena. With both teams facing off for the 13th time this year in their 70th overall game of the season, a race for seeding in the Mountain Division permeated this late-season showdown.
Idaho began the first of their last three regular season games against Utah with a scoreless first period, followed by a 1-1 tie with the Grizzlies after two before defenseman Jeff King notched the game-winning goal at 12:59 of the third period. The Steelheads added an empty-net tally in third to claim a 3-1 victory over the Grizzlies, as both teams hopped on buses postgame for two games in Utah on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
When asked about the growth of the team from year’s start to now, Idaho Head Coach Neil Graham reflected on the roster heading into the last two regular season games and beyond:
“It’s been a steady journey. We’ve had a lot of turnover and a lot of call-ups, but that’s what this is about: guys getting an opportunity. We’re seeing some bodies trickle back in, and we’re seeing the core group maintain; our culture is in place. It’s a good and exciting time of year, and I know both teams are going to be playing hard again tomorrow.”
The first frame showcased some very disciplined hockey from both Idaho and Utah, as the two defenses clamped down to allow only eight shots from the Steelheads and six shots from the Grizzlies. With only three combined minor penalties, each squad’s special teams began the game on point as well. The zeros on the scoreboard were indicative of the stingy play between the two teams.
Period number two began with a returning Kale Kessy whistled for roughing at 1:07. Kessy would receive another minor penalty in the middle regulation frame, this time for tripping at 12:26 of the second. Just over 30 seconds later, Utah defenseman Kevin Davis was set up for a slap shot from the blue line. His slapper made its way through traffic, slipping five-hole on Idaho netminder Tomas Sholl for a power-play goal and a 1-0 lead for the Grizzlies.
The Steelheads responded before period’s end with a power-play tally of their own. After Utah captain Teigan Zahn received a boarding call (and subsequent fighting major) against Idaho defenseman Ondrej Vala at 18:26, the Steelies found themselves on their second (and ultimately last) man-advantage of the game. After a Robbie Payne shot was deflected wide to bounce off the boards behind the net, the puck was corralled by Idaho captain A.J. White to the right of Utah goaltender Kevin Carr. White then put his high-angle shot off the back of Carr and in to make it a 1-1 tie game at 18:57 of the second regulation segment.
After the goal, Carr dug the puck out of the net and launched it into the stands. The Unionville, Ontario native was then handed a game misconduct and ejected from the game. This turn of events led to rookie goaltender Alex LeClerc backstopping the Grizzlies for the rest of the game, having only signed to Utah the day before tonight’s matchup.
LeClerc did admirably in his pro debut, stopping 10 of 11 shots in 19:55 on the ice. The only shot he didn’t stop was a wide-open wrister from Idaho’s King, who beat the Colorado College product far, blocker-side from the right wing with just over seven minutes remaining in regulation. A coast-to-coast lob from forward Spencer Naas was good for the empty-net dagger at 19:12, securing the win for the Steelheads by a score of 3-1.
RETURN OF THE KESS
Some big news on the evening was the return of power forward Kale Kessy to Idaho’s lineup after signing an AHL contract with the Colorado Eagles on April 3. Kessy played in 15 games for Colorado, helping the Eagles with a nine-game winning streak from the end of February through the middle of March. In his first ECHL game since February 20, Kessy earned an assist on the A.J. White goal in the second, netted a shot on goal, and earned six penalty minutes in his return to the Steelheads.
LECLERC TURNS PRO
An unexpected debut occurred tonight as well, as Utah’s rookie goaltender Alex LeClerc was called into duty after Grizzlies netminder Kevin Carr was booted from the game for sending the puck into the crowd. LeClerc, coming off of a postseason run with the Colorado College that included an upset of Western Michigan on the road, had almost twenty minutes of ice time in his professional debut.
LeClerc said: “Personally, I thought it was a great opportunity. Everybody that gets with a team would love to jump on the ice right away. There’s tremendous guys in the locker room — Kevin (Carr) is one of them — so having the opportunity to go in tonight was an honor, just working as hard as I can.”
Utah netminder Alex LeClerc on his unexpected debut, collegiate postseason, and what he expects for the Kelly Cup Playoffs
RATELLE GETS RATTLED
Around the 3:15 mark of the second period, Utah forward Joey Ratelle was jockeying for position behind Idaho’s net. As he was looking down for the puck, an errant stick came up and butted him below his right eye, sending Ratelle crashing to the ice. At the same time, Grizzlies defender Taylor Richart lay face down on the ice in front of Utah’s cage, staying on the ground before being helped to the bench by two teammates.
Richart returned in short order, but it wasn’t until the third period until Ratelle was seen on the ice again, stitched up in two separate places on his right cheek. Postgame, Ratelle let it be known that this isn’t his first rodeo when it comes to stitches:
“I’m feeling fine. I’m used to it…not the first time I’ve got stitches in my face. We’re hockey players; we’re going to come back no matter what. If my eye was fine, for sure I was going to come back on the ice and try to help the team as much as I could.”
Utah forward Joey Ratelle discusses his ECHL return, facial injury, and staying tied in with the Colorado Eagles
MOUNTAIN DIVISION SCRAMBLE
With the win over Utah, Idaho remains second in the Mountain Division standings with 87 points. Tulsa also achieved victory Friday night, earning a 4-1 win over Kalamazoo to hang onto first place in the Mountain with 88 points. Tulsa needs to win their last two games to clinch the division. Idaho can clinch the division with a few different scenarios: two wins with either one or two Tulsa losses, or one win with two Tulsa losses.
Fourth place Kansas City defeated Rapid City 5-1 in South Dakota to bump up to 77 points, right behind Utah’s 79 points. If Kansas City wins their final game against Rapid City on Saturday night and Utah loses their final two games against Idaho, both teams will be tied at 79 points. The tiebreaker would then fall to regulation and overtime wins (ROW), which if the hypothetical situation plays out above, Kansas City would have 35 ROW to Utah’s 33. That would be good enough for KC to earn the third seed while bumping Utah down to fourth.
Idaho finishes its season up in two final games against Utah in West Valley City on Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 7. Puck drop is 7:05pm MT on Saturday and 1:05pm MT on Sunday.