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SERIES PREVIEW: Steelheads set for three big games with Grizzlies

Friday, October 30th
SERIES PREVIEW: Steelheads set for three big games with Grizzlies

The Steelheads and Utah Grizzlies take the ice at CenturyLink Arena on Friday night on very similar footing. Both teams are looking to get back in the win column after tough losses, the Steelheads dropping their last two games in Alaska while the Grizzlies grabbed only one of a possible four points from their home-opening weekend against Allen. Both teams have also demonstrated a never-say-die attitude, with Idaho mounting two third period comebacks against the Aces, one producing a win, and the Grizzlies fighting back from a three-goal deficit to eventually force a last minute tie against Allen before ultimately falling in overtime.

These are also two teams that know each other well, both presently and historically. The Steelheads are 77-34-21 all-time against the Grizzlies and won both meetings between the two teams during the preseason. Yet it’s the Steelheads who will still have a chip on their shoulder when the puck drops on Friday. The Grizzlies eliminated the Steelheads from the playoffs last Spring, winning the final three games of the first-round series and the final two games played at CenturyLink Arena.

The Steelheads will host the season-opener before heading to Utah for a Halloween matinee on Saturday and the series finale on Monday night.

STEELHEAD TO WATCH

The Steelheads offense has been pretty dependable early in the season, strong out of the gates and responsive in the third period of most games. It’s the defensive zone that earned a lot of the focus from Neil Graham and the coaching staff this week, especially in breakouts and net-front coverage. One player that can have a significant impact for Idaho in both of those areas is a player who stepped up against the Aces, defenseman Corbin Baldwin.

Baldwin has played all five games for Idaho this season, but had some rust to knock off in the early going after not getting into any preseason action. His level of play jumped in Alaska, where he was effective in his role as a strong-skating defensive defenseman. Baldwin was effective in challenging opponents at the Steelheads blue line, something that isn’t easy on Olympic ice, and added two assists as well. He was plus-2 across the three games, and with the team looking to further solidify its defensive presence in front of the net, Baldwin can go a long way in settling the D-zone.

And there’s a significant player to key in on regarding that battle in front of the net…

GRIZZLY TO WATCH

Barry Almeida got the attention of many around the ECHL during the preseason when he netted four goals in the Grizzlies’ two preseason games against Idaho. Four games into the regular season, Almeida has refused to give the spotlight back.

Almeida has nine points in the first four games. He’s tied for the league lead in points, playing fewer games than any of the other three co-leaders. His six goals are enough for the league’s outright lead. Almeida scored four goals in Utah’s second game of the season against the Colorado Eagles, helping push him to ECHL Player of the Week honors.

The Steelheads need to be mindful of the Grizzlies’ best scorer, who found plenty of room to work with between the circles in the Grizzlies’ preseason visit to CenturyLink Arena. But while they need to respect Almeida, they cannot ignore Utah’s other weapons, like Ryan Walters and Matt Berry, also scoring at better than a point-per-game pace.

KEY MATCHUP

The Steelheads are averaging 3.6 goals per game, and the Grizzlies are averaging four goals per game. And while both teams are moving the puck pretty well at 5-on-5, the Steelheads power play is still hoping to catch fire after scoring on two of its first 20 chances and only one of its past 18. The Grizzlies power play percentage is much stronger at 21.4, but that’s still three goals in 14 chances to start the season with two of them coming in the season’s first game. The Steelheads have been short-handed 28 times in five games, and Utah’s 20 penalty kill situations in just four games isn’t far from that pace.

As much as both teams would like to stay 5-on-5 as much as possible, the Steelheads need to put their special teams to work when possible. The Grizzlies penalty kill has given up five goals already and it could be an opportunity for the Steelheads to get that unit going, with Colton Beck the only power play goal-scorer so far this season. On the other side of the spectrum, Almeida leads the league in goals but hasn’t found the back of the net on the power play yet. The Steelheads can’t expect him to be held down forever, and they would be wise not to flirt with that danger by staying out of the box regardless of how effective that penalty kill has been.

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