The Idaho Steelheads will kick off their season-long roadtrip in Orlando on Thursday night, followed by games Friday and Saturday night in Estero against the Florida Everblades. The Steelheads will look to boost their 3-2-0 road record and to continue their two game road-winning streak that began in Utah at the beginning of the month.
The Steelheads need to get back to their winning ways after collecting just one of the six points at CenturyLink Arena last week. Head Coach Neil Graham doesn’t feel there’s a large gap in his team’s performance between winning hockey games and last week’s near-misses.
“It’s a few little things here and there. I thought early we had some miscues on the back end and we righted the ship there,” said Graham. “The last game, I thought it was some untimely penalties and it’s a momentum swing. When you have a period like we did in the second period on Saturday and you outshoot them 17-5 and then take two penalties out of frustration, it gives them life heading into the third. We battled hard but it’s tough to get back.”
Graham also mentioned the improving power play, which broke a long drought against Atlanta with a goal in three straight games. Where the power play improved, the often stellar penalty kill took a minor step back, giving up three goals across Friday and Saturday.
“Everyone’s been talking about our power play all year and quietly our penalty kill was at 92 percent and it wasn’t being talked about. Now our power play was about 18 percent over the last three games and our penalty kill dipped to about 82 percent,” said Graham. “So everyone likes the power play goals but at the end of the day we need to make sure all our special teams are going.”
That will help the Steelheads close what has been a narrow margin for error. The Steelheads have lost seven games this season in regulation or overtime, with five of them coming in games decided by one goal or two goals with an empty-netter.
Against Atlanta, the Steelheads found themselves facing a team in a similar situation as themselves coming off back-to-back road wins. In Orlando they will again face a team with a mindset similar to their own, as the Solar Bears enter Thursday’s game riding their own two-game losing streak at the hands of the Everblades.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
Rob Linsmayer had a terrific training camp, creating scoring chances and finding the scoresheet himself with an up-tempo, heavy pressure style in two preseason games against Utah. That didn’t translate to a great deal of production in the first few regular season games, but Linsmayer is back on track and in the midst of one of the better stretches of his career. The Steelheads forward was held off the scoreboard on Saturday, snapping a career-long five game points streak, but his line with Jefferson Dahl and Emil Molin was still a force to be reckoned with, as it was on Friday night when it produced four goals. With Molin’s recall to Texas, Graham may be forced to shuffle lines and split Dahl and Linsmayer, but it will still be critical for the Steelheads to get the heavy forecheck game out of Linsmayer that gave him six assists in his five-game streak and led Graham to give him some good power play looks on the second unit.
SOLAR BEAR TO WATCH
The Steelies are going to want to mind Eric Baier this weekend. Idaho has given up five goals to defenseman this year, and while Baier has only scored twice on the season, he’s been an offensive catalyst every night for Orlando. Baier is in the midst of a five-game points streak (1-6-7) and has gotten on the scoresheet in every game but one this season. He’s the second-highest scoring blue liner in the league, and while the Steelheads have been improving focus on collapsing around the net and taking away opportunities in front, they aren’t going to want to give Baier too much room to work with high in the zone.
EVERBLADE TO WATCH
Mike Aviani and Matt Marquardt are both tied atop the leader board in the ECHL for points, but it’s Aviani who is on an absolute tear in the month of November. As of Wednesday, the forward has scored nine of his 14 points in five November games, and six goals in that time. He is in the midst of a three-game goal scoring streak. Aviani also has two game-winners and two power play goals this month. The Steelheads have done a fairly decent job for much of the season limiting the opponents’ key scorers- Barry Almeida, Justin Breton, etc.-but secondary options like Matt Berry, Garry Nunn, and Joe Perry have hurt them. The Steelheads do need to lockdown on Aviani, but they can’t forget about Marquardt or get into penalty trouble where rookie defenseman Justin Agosta can hurt them.KEY MATCHUP
In both Florida venues, the game can get away from you in a hurry if you’re not minding your defensive details. Atlanta played a fast game at CenturyLink Arena, and the Solar Bears and Everblades will look to play even faster and activate all five men off the rush. That’s how the Steelheads like to attack as well, a reason why on most nights the Steelheads have had little trouble scoring. But if this becomes a weekend of “can my guns over power yours”, the Steelheads will find themselves in a game they don’t want to play. They’ve talked about playing stronger in the defensive zone, something they did well for long stretches against Atlanta. They will need to mind their gaps early in the first period and set the pace of the track-meet in the neutral zone early on. If the Steelheads can control the zone entries for both high-scoring teams and minimize the two-to-three shift defensive zone lapses that have hurt them, they can avoid the one-goal aggravation of last week.