BOISE, Idaho – Idaho headed into its last home game of 2018 on the heels of six wins in eight games – all home affairs – from November 30 to December 21. The Steelheads’ ninth and final home game of that stretch was their second in as many days against the Utah Grizzlies, and the Steelies needed to recover and respond to the 5-1 drubbing the Grizz placed on the club just the evening before.
How about with a whole lot of physicality, and seven goals to boot?
The Steelheads made a statement in more ways than one Saturday night, neutralizing two of the top five scorers in the league (Caleb Herbert and Cole Ully) and taking the split in the weekend series with the Grizzlies by a more-than-convincing score of 7-3. Idaho forwards Tony Calderone and Robbie Payne both had three-point nights, with the former scoring two goals with one assist, and the latter netting one goal and two assists. Steelies left winger Kale Kessy also had himself a night on and off the score sheet, achieving a Gordie Howe hat trick of one goal, one assist, and one fight on the evening…and adding another scrap for good measure.
Kessy’s energy and brutality was a sight to behold against a frustrated Utah squad.
“He’s scary,” Calderone bluntly stated. “When he’s out there, guys play a little timid against him. I think that really helps us, gives us some more space. We can play our game and not have to worry about anything because we’ve got him to help us out. What he does is very effective.”
Idaho drew first blood scoring for the second evening in a row, with Kyle Schempp burying a wrister from inside the right wing circle past Kevin Carr at 3:03 of the first period. Also worth noting, defenseman Geoff Crisfield (currently on loan from SPHL Birmingham) earned his first ECHL point on Schempp’s goal with a secondary assist on the tally. Calderone’s two goals on the night also came in the first, putting Idaho up 3-0 just eight minutes into the opening frame.
Minutes later, Utah captain Teigan Zahn plastered Calderone against the boards deep in the Grizzlies defensive zone, drawing the ire of Kessy before falling victim to the Saskatoon native’s first fight of the night. Although his reach kept Kessy from landing any solid punches, a clearly shaken Zahn more than likely knew he had escaped some potential damage from the 6’3” forward after the refs stepped in to separate the two.
The Grizzlies responded before the end of the first frame. Idaho defenseman Clint Lewis tried to clear the puck out in front of goaltender Tomas Sholl after dropping it out of mid-air, but the puck ended up on the hot stick of J.T. Henke and into the back of the net. With Utah cutting the lead to two, Idaho took its precarious 3-1 lead into the second period with adversity on the horizon.
Crisfield ended his night early about five minutes into the second, severely boarding Grizzlies defenseman Mike Economos into the corner and garnering a five-minute major, ten-minute game misconduct, and resulting ejection. Utah answered appropriately on the long power-play opportunity, potting two goals from Ryan Walters and Henke in the span of 15 seconds to even the game up, 3-3.
“When they were able to get a couple on that five-minute major, that’s what can happen,” Idaho Head Coach Neil Graham confessed. “They tied it up, but what impressed me is that we were calm on the bench and didn’t panic.”
Idaho limited the scoring hemorrhage to just two, coming out of the other side with an unfortunate roughing minor from Kessy tied. It was shortly after that Payne, shorthanded, drove in with one Grizzlies skater in defense. Payne’s initial shot was blocked by the sprawled out d-man, but with the puck returning to his stick, the AHL-contracted forward scored what would eventually end up as the go-ahead goal for the night at 13:22 of the second regulation segment.
“It was a good pass up by (Keegan Kanzig),” Payne reflected on his goal. “It was also a good strip by (Reid Petryk) to set it up; he made a good play. But that pass up…I got lucky catching that pass…it was an unusual way to catch it. I came down, had a shot, good block by the defender, but it just came back to me. So, it was nice to get a goal there with that shot, but I think it was the way we played all night was really what let me have that chance.”
Steelheads forward Brad McClure added a power play goal during a Steelheads 5-on-3 chance later in the second, with Kessy adding another one after a spot-on corner pass from Calderone was chipped in at 4:37 of the third. Up 6-3 now, Kessy then decided to pop Utah enforcer R.T Rice in the back of the head, instigating yet another fight. As Rice opened the bout with a failed superman punch, Kessy rewarded him with two swift punches before Rice crumpled to the ground. An audacious Kessy then wiped the proverbial dust from his hands, jawing at the Utah bench as he was ejected from the game with a misconduct penalty.
Coach Graham: “He’s a guy that does a little bit of everything…and that’s what makes him so dangerous. He can score, he can make plays, he’s on the power play and the penalty kill. If someone gets out of line, he’s not afraid to jump in there and help a teammate. When you have a guy that brings all those elements…it’s very unique to have all those characteristics, and he does it game in and game out.”
Idaho’s Alexander Dahl topped off the Steelheads’ four-goal surge at 8:36 of the final regulation frame. Surprisingly, Idaho’s seven goals came on just 21 shots on net, a conversion rate of just over 33%. Utah’s 36 shots on net were stifled by outstanding goaltending from Sholl, drawing 33 saves and a .917 save percentage on the evening.
Idaho Head Coach Neil Graham on the game play of Kale Kessy, Robbie Payne, and Tony Calderone
Idaho forward Robbie Payne on his current linemates, hitting his stride, and his lucky number 13
The Steelheads will take their holiday break before jumping back into a road series with Rapid City on December 28. Their next home game will be the start of a three-game set with Toledo on January 9, and the Steelheads will host the Grizzlies only one more time at home for the 2018-19 regular season: an April 5, one-off game right at the tail end of the season. Stay tuned to The Sin Bin for all your minor league hockey news!