The Idaho Steelheads were back on the ice for practice on Monday, ahead of their three-game road trip up north to visit the Alaska Aces. The road trip comes at a good time for the Steelheads, after splitting their first two home games against the Rapid City Rush. A week on the road gives any team an opportunity to grow.
“I think it’s a good thing right now. It’s been over two weeks with camp in Boise. As much as we love being at home, it’s good for us to be on the road right now,” said Head Coach Neil Graham, who won his first game as a bench boss on Friday night. “Guys who are rooming together on the road will have different roommates than they’re with at home, so it’s just another way for the team to bond. This is a long trip, and just being together for that long will be a good chance for us to mesh and it’ll be good for our team.”
It’s also a change of scenery after a disappointing outcome on Saturday night, when the Steelheads surrendered a three-goal lead and lost in overtime. The Steelheads certainly had no issue scoring, with nine goals in two games, but there are still elements of their overall game that need to be ironed out at this early stage of the season.
The Steelheads tended to those things on Monday.
“I don’t expect us to score five goals every night because that’s just not realistic,” said Graham. “Today we spent a lot of time addressing things in the D-zone and going over some situations including 6-on-5 with an extra attacker. It’s nothing that we haven’t worked on, but it’s still early.”
“It’s stuff we need to continue to work on, stuff we have to improve on every day.”
- Graham was happy with the performance of his youngsters over the weekend. The Steelheads had five rookie skaters in the lineup each night, plus rookie goaltender Philippe Desrosiers on Saturday night.
“I think that’s a good thing because it’s youthful energy. Yeah, there’ll be some young mistakes, but it’s early,” said Graham. “The positives we saw out of those players and the energy they bring are contagious, and it’s good for our lineup to have those young legs. The excitement on the bench goes right through the team.”
That certainly applies to defenseman Cole Martin, who became the first Steelheads rookie defenseman to score in his first two pro games since the Steelheads joined the ECHL. Martin also posted a plus-6 rating, which leads the team.
“I surprised myself in some aspects I guess, but it was good to get the first weekend out of the way and to calm the nerves,” said Martin, who scored 7 goals and had 39 points last season with the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League.
“It’s been a different journey for me. I started out as an offensive guy and then in junior I was more of a defensive guy. But I always thought that I could offer the two-way game. This is a bit of a clean slate and I’m looking to do a little bit of both. First and foremost is taking care of my end, and the offense will come.”
-The Steelheads’ nine-goal outburst to open the season was a welcome sight for the coaching staff, but certainly not random. A great deal of the offense was the direct result of the heavy forecheck pressure that Graham’s system encourages.
Jefferson Dahl’s short-handed goal on Friday night was the product of his dogged pursuit of the puck in the offensive zone and an eventual turnover. It was the kind of energy that gave Idaho long stretches of possession time throughout the first weekend.
“We’ve implemented a system and a style for that kind of attack, and I think the guys are excited to play it. They definitely bought in early on the offensive side to what we’ve been preaching, and it’s been great to watch them. They’re attacking with speed, they’re generating off the rush,” said Graham.
“We’ve been letting them get creative but we’ve also run some of the plays that we’ve implemented, and it’s been great to see them respond and get excited about the offensive side. If we can tighten up a few things defensively, we’ll be a solid hockey team.”
- The Steelheads are 68-46-12 all-time against the Alaska Aces, but playing in Alaska poses several challenges. In addition to the travel itself, the Aces play the game on the wider, Olympic-sized sheet. That won’t be a big issue for the Steelheads, however, who’ve already gotten a taste of the larger rink in this young season.
“We’ll definitely make some adjustments, but we were fortunate that our second exhibition game was at the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, so we’ve already played one game on Olympic ice this year,” said Graham. “You don’t have to rewrite the game, but we’ll make a few tweaks to how we approach the game and our style on the big ice. But at the end of the day, it’s still about playing a two-way game, getting up and down 200 feet, and competing.”