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GAME PREVIEW: October 9 vs. Utah, October 10th @ Utah

Friday, October 9th
GAME PREVIEW: October 9 vs. Utah, October 10th @ Utah

The Idaho Steelheads will start the 2015 preseason staring down the same squad that ended their Kelly Cup hopes last April. The Steelheads host the Utah Grizzlies in the first half of a home-and-home series on Friday night at CenturyLink Arena.

The Grizzlies took out the Steelheads in six games in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, spinning off three straight wins (two at CenturyLink Arena) to send the Steelheads home for the summer. The Steelheads battled hard to gut out two overtime wins through the series’ first three games, but that might have come at too harsh a price as Idaho’s young defense struggled to stifle the top Grizzlies’ guns.

Mathieu Aubin dished out six assists in the final three games, while Mike Pelech totaled eight points over the last four games. Brenden Walker added six points as well. Aubin and Walker return to the Grizzlies for another season, while the Steelheads will be looking to new sources for offense.

Nate MacLeod had as strong a playoff for Idaho as he did a regular season, when he ranked second in the ECHL scoring race with 38 goals and 80 points. MacLeod backed that up with five goals in six playoff games, but it was a rookie who road shotgun on the score sheet and could play a huge role in producing the scoring that MacLeod’s departure takes away.

Colton Beck had four goals and five points in six games for Idaho after a 49-point regular season. Beck netted 24 points (12-12-24) over his final 24 games, bringing his game to the next level in the second half of the season. He’ll be relied on to pick up where he left off and spark a Steelheads attack that features some newfound fire power in training camp with additions Carson MacMillan and Brandon Magee, as well as veteran Andrew Carroll who returns for his second stint in Idaho.

With 13 rookie skaters in training camp, including five on the blue line, the Steelheads will count on their veterans and returning players to lead in the early going.

PLAYER TO WATCH: STEELHEADS

Jefferson Dahl is another Steelhead who came to Idaho last year and put up a solid rookie season. Dahl put up 13 goals and 34 points over 41 games in Idaho, and he is off to a nice start in the first week of training camp. Dahl scored a hat trick in Idaho’s intrasquad scrimmage, but it wasn’t necessarily the stat line that garnered attention. It was how Dahl did it.

Dahl scored on a greasy rebound, added another on sharp wrister off the rush, and put a bow on his afternoon when he received a pass alone on the doorstep and out-waited the goaltender to tuck the puck into an open net. Dahl is showing a smoothness and patience with the puck that mirrors how he carries himself off the ice, calm and collected. Dahl is showing the comfort and confidence of a returning player, and could be primed for a quick start.

PLAYER TO WATCH: GRIZZLIES

Utah’s training camp roster features 12 returning players (counting goaltenders), but their biggest impact player could be a newcomer. Ryan Walters joins Utah this season after splitting last year between the AHL’s Iowa Wild and the Alaska Aces. Walters racked up 43 points (20-23-43) in 46 games with Alaska last year after putting up seven points in 20 games with Iowa. It’s just Walters’ second full pro season after a standout four-year career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he scored 134 points in 152 games and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2013 when he finished second in the nation in scoring. Walker’s offensive ability makes him an instant threat on a team that already returns its top scorer from last season.

KEY MATCHUP

It’s no secret; these two teams don’t like each other. And while neither coach likely wants to risk injuries in an out-of-hand preseason game, Friday night will be a stage for several players to fight for roster spots. On the Steelheads blue line, a physical affair will give several players an opportunity to assert themselves in front of the coaching staff.

The Steelheads added brawn to the back end for opponents just like the Grizzlies, with defensemen Andrew Panzarella and Mark Louis bringing both the size and track records to impose their will. Of course, it’s also an opportunity for the defense corps as a whole to demonstrate their grasp of Head Coach Neil Graham’s breakout systems against what is sure to be an aggressive Utah forecheck. Preseason games are an opportunity to learn just where your team is in its progression, and the Steelhead defense corps can teach us a lot this weekend.

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