The Steelheads' first home-stand since early November was a brief one, a three-game stint at CenturyLink Arena against the Eastern Conference leaders, the Florida Everblades. And while the Steelheads went 1-2-0 in their second series of the year with Florida, there was certainly growth in the team’s performance from Wednesday’s first period to the end of the weekend.
“They always say after a long road trip, especially ours was 19 days, that first home game back is the toughest. The message all week was that we had to be prepared,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham. “We’re not in a situation right now in the standings where we can afford to take a night off, and I wasn’t happy with our game and our execution Wednesday. Friday and Saturday were very similar to each other in the way we played in that we played very hard and executed the systems.”
The Steelheads were outshot 18-5 in the first period of the series opener, but hung tough and only trailed by a goal heading to the dressing room. They would control the pace of play for essentially the rest of the series.
“The only difference is Friday we were rewarded with a few more goals. On Saturday we had plenty of chances and outshot one of the top teams in the league 14-3 in the second period. But it’s not the shots that count, and we need to find a way to put pucks in,” said Graham. “We had a couple of posts and a couple chances in the slot and that’s on us.”
That included a golden opportunity for forward Andrew Carroll in the second period that rang the iron and a second chance for the veteran right above the blue paint late in the third in what was arguably his best performance of the season. The Steelheads outshot Florida 23-10 in the final 40 minutes on Saturday but couldn’t find the tying goal.
“We’re getting our looks and we need to loosen up our hands a little bit. When we see net we need to make good on it.”
- A little more finish in the weeks ahead can certainly have the Steelheads’ record turning around, as the Steelheads have had the possession edge in their last six games. They’ve taken more than one and a half times as many shots as their opponents, an impressive number already before you consider it’s skewed by one 18-shot period for the Everblades last week. Overall, the Steelheads have kept opponents’ opportunities to a minimum.
“Even in Rapid City, we limit teams to less than 25 shots, which is good,” said defenseman Shawn Boutin. “The D-zone is getting better, and we’re communicating better. Now we have to find a way to do the simple things that will let us win hockey games.”
The Steelheads have surrendered 20 or fewer shots in five of their last six games.
“Our team has bought into the defensive concept that we’re asking and we’ve tightened up a few things structurally to help prevent shots,” said Graham. “We’re trying to limit odd-man rushes against and I think we’ve done a good job of that. But on the flip side, as we are lowering shots against we still need to make good on our own chances.”
“On Wednesday we had four or five two-on-ones and I think we only had one shot. So we’re still playing with speed and with pace but we need to start bearing down on our opportunities because they’re there for us.”
- Several of those odd-man rushes for Idaho came on the penalty-kill, with the Steelheads killing off all 12 man-advantages for one of the best power play units in the league. To top it off, the Steelheads scored two shorthanded goals, one from Zack Kamrass on a 2-on-1 rebound and another thanks to the quick-burst speed of newcomer Gemel Smith.
“The penalty kill is something we take pride in and it has to be good, especially when it helps to manage those big momentum swings throughout the game,” said Graham. “The job of the penalty kill is not to score goals but to defend and keep pucks out. But if we’re getting in good lanes and keep our feet moving we’ll get bounces that spring us the other way.”
- Smith wasn’t the only Steelhead cramming a lot of new material into a short period of time, as four other players made their Steelheads’ debut this week including Cole Ully, Zach Yuen, Jake Fallon, and Kyle Jean. Graham was happy with how his players adjusted, noting that the coaches had some teaching to do but that some of that responsibility went to his players as well.
“I thought they fit in well in the dressing room and they’ve done everything they can to buy into the systems. It’s tough for those guys, and we don’t expect them to know everything over night. But they work hard and ask good questions,” said Graham. “It’s a credit to the guys in our room. I think they were helping them adjust and gel quickly.”
For Ully and Smith, it wasn’t just adjusting to new systems and surroundings that was important, but also new expanded roles in their first games in Idaho.
“It’s an adjustment and it’s a different game here, even the amount of ice-time being given to me and Gemel,’” said Ully, who got solid power play time after receiving much less of it as a rookie in Texas. “The first game was a bit tough and I wasn’t at my best, I’ll be the first to admit that. The second game I felt better and thought I got my legs under me.
- The challenging first half schedule continues for the Steelheads with four games in five inghts against two teams they’ve never met before. However, because of Graham’s recent years behind the Steelheads’ bench as an assistant, the Tulsa Oilers won’t be total strangers.
“Jason Christie is the coach of Tulsa and he was the coach of Ontario for the last several years. I’ve seen his teams' styles and they’re going to work hard. They’re going to be very aggressive and work hard. We expect to see two very good teams this week.”
- Ully made his mark felt immediately at CenturyLink Arena, shattering a pane of glass behind the net on a second period power play and bringing the fans to their feet.
“I felt like the fan favorite for a few minutes but not for the right reasons,” said Ully with a smile. “I did miss the net.”