TULSA, Okla. – Most of the time when watching a sporting event you know who you would prefer to prevail, but sometimes that just isn’t the case. Sometimes a matchup occurs in which you feel yourself desperately searching for a way both sides can win, but alas, it’s just not possible.
We form connections with the teams we support, and on Wednesday night in Tulsa two teams I have developed a strong bond, the Tulsa Oilers and Idaho Steelheads, clashed on the ice. Watching the game became an experience of two perspectives, wanting both sides to succeed at the same time.
My connection with Tulsa is one formed over the course of many years, dating back to my first hockey experience at the age of five in 1993. I have watched hundreds of games from the seats in Tulsa, first at the Tulsa Convention Center, and now the beautiful BOK Center. The players come and go, and some stay longer than others, but it is the logo and what it means that brings it all together. The Oiler on the front represents Doug Lawrence, Todd Marcellus, and David-Alexandre Beauregard, just as now it represents Adam Pleskach, Garrett Ladd, and Charlie Sampair. It represents the friendly and familiar faces in the arena that you come to know over the years, and the city they come from. You become friends with your fellow hockey fans, more than friends; you become fellow members of what in Oklahoma is an exclusive club.
What I am trying to say is the connection with the Oilers runs deep. Very deep. So with Tulsa most certainly needing the win to keep pace in the playoff race, why was I even the slightest bit convicted deep down as to what I wanted to happen? Likely because I have also formed a connection with the Steelheads.
I’ve been a Dallas Stars fan every bit as long as a Tulsa fan, and over the years have had a soft spot for the squad from Idaho where so many Stars prospects started off. I did not know too much more about them at first, other than that they were called the Steelheads, played in Boise, and experienced far more success than failure. I have come to know them more over the last couple of years, but it went to a whole new level this season.
Covering the Texas Stars for The Sin Bin this year has led me to closely watch the Steelheads, the success of the individual players, as well as the team. I have watched as players like Philippe Desrosiers, Shane Hanna, or Max French have gone up and down between the two, and they always seem to arrive in Texas ready to perform. Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham knows what he wants to see, and the squad has completely accepted his system of speed and playing from the net out. Rookie Eric Sweetman has been a player I have watched excel in the system, as the 5-foot-11 defender uses his speed and quickness to be in position to make the necessary play.
Watching the team so closely, and being treated so well by Idaho play-by-play voice Brian McCormack and Coach Graham when I have asked to talk has gone a long way to strengthen the connection as well. Add that to the fact that you always want the team you are covering to play well, and you end up with me wanting Idaho to succeed every bit as much as Tulsa.
As the game began Wednesday, you could feel the urgency in Tulsa’s game, as they came in three points back of a playoff spot with just three games to play. They owned time of possession and fired shot after shot on the Idaho goal. While I was thrilled with Tulsa’s effort, I simultaneously reveled in the opportunity to watch Steelheads netminder Tomas Sholl in action.
Sholl started the 2017-18 season in the SPHL, playing two games for the Macon Mayhem (0-1-1) and 18 for the Evansville Thunderbolts (14-2-2), before getting his shot in the ECHL with the Adirondack Thunder. Sholl has been unbelievable in the ECHL, as he remains unbeaten in regulation (14-0-2) in 18 appearances between Adirondack (5-0-1) and Idaho (9-0-1). Sholl has been a critical addition for the Steelheads, who had seen stud goalie Desrosiers called up to Texas in the midst of a career year. Sholl has somehow surpassed even what Philippe Desrosiers had been doing, and he most certainly lived up to the hype in person. On Wednesday night, the rookie made 44 saves, several of the eye-catching variety, and held the desperate Oilers to one goal on the night.
Sholl’s play at the back steadied the Steelheads and allowed them to use the counter-attack to take advantage when the Oilers got over aggressive. Idaho would strike twice in the first, as goals by Sweetman and Justin Parizek had Idaho up 2-0 after one despite being outshot 16-5 in the frame.
The middle frame was a much more even period, with each team acquiring ten shots and French scoring the only goal.
As the third period began Idaho held a 3-0 lead, but Tulsa would not go quietly into the night. The Oilers outshot Idaho 19-5 in the period, and managed to cut the Steelheads lead to 3-1 6:34 into the third. Sholl made a save during a scramble, sprawling on the ice to kick out his leg in time to stop the puck. The rebound went right to a wide open Pleskach in the slot, who lifted the puck into the net.
The goal brought life to the arena, and gave me a feeling of hope for Tulsa in this crucial game for them. I would be equally impressed by the Idaho response, however, as just 2:07 later, Steven McParland restored the three-goal lead and established the eventual final score of 4-1.
I left the arena feeling both the joy of watching Idaho win and Sholl play so well, but also crushing disappointment that Tulsa’s assault on goal had not led to a much-needed victory.
There remains one more question left for me to answer after watching last night’s game; where does this result leave each team?
For Tulsa, things are desperate now. While the Oilers playoff hopes are not dead, at three points back with two games to play, they are on life support. The Oilers will need to win their final two contests against Rapid City, but will now need either Allen or Wichita to lose its final two games as well. All Tulsa fans will now immediately become massive Idaho fans for the weekend, as the Steelheads are headed south to Allen for two against the Americans.
Idaho, on the other hand, already knows that they will finish second in the Mountain and will have home-ice advantage in the first round. The Steelheads can’t catch the Colorado Eagles for first in the standings, but the Steelheads are well built for the playoffs. When the Steelheads can trust the goaltending, the entire system falls into place. Fans were worried when Desrosiers was called up, but one day soon Steelheads fans may look back at that as the move that created the opening for Sholl to help bring the Kelly Cup to Boise for the first time since 2006-07.
You can keep up with the Steelheads and Oilers on Twitter by following our Idaho writer C.C. Hawkley @SinBinIdaho, and our Tulsa writer Rich Lohman @Rich_Lohman. You can also follow @SinBinNews for news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL.