If one tries to identify a turning point for the Steelheads this season, the moment they began their climb back up the Western Conference standings and above the .500 mark, there are a few choices. The team’s friendlier home schedule in December and the additions of Kyle Jean and Zach Yuen certainly helped the Steelheads, and Jack Campbell’s arrival was also a solid boost. And of course there’s also the reality that this young team matured, grew, and flat-out improved.
But if you were to circle a date on the calendar, it would likely be the Steelheads’ win in Tulsa on December 11th, the first of Idaho’s season-long eight-game unbeaten streak that turned the team in the right direction. Perhaps not a coincidence, that was when Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Gord Baldwin united Shawn Boutin and Corbin Baldwin on the same defense pairing.
They’ve been together ever since, and for good reason.
“It’s not like it was an instant chemistry for them, but I think as soon as they started playing together both of their games got a lot better,” said Gord. “The longer they go together, they play tougher minutes against the other team’s top lines. They feed off each other.”
Neither Corbin Baldwin nor Boutin have earned a minus rating in any of the past 19 games, both logging a plus-14 over that time. Baldwin’s plus-19 for the season leads the Steelheads.
“I haven’t had a streak like that, I don’t think,” said Boutin, who is now a plus-7 for the season. “It’s really fun and I’m enjoying it.”
Corbin didn’t even know about the streak until this past weekend in Atlanta, acknowledging that he does hear taunts from opposing forwards on the rare occasion he is on the ice for a goal against. That hasn’t happened very often since mid-December, both at 5-on-5 or as the Steelheads’ pairing on the first penalty-killing unit.
“They’ve been great. And I know they both enjoy playing with each other and they’ve embraced their role as a shutdown pair,” said Graham. “They look forward to the matchups and they look forward to penalty killing. It’s not too often you see guys laughing about the blocked shots and the bruises they have all over their bodies.”
Shot blocking is not a stat recorded by the ECHL, but one can get a pretty accurate tally for Boutin and Baldwin by counting the welts up and down their legs after games. They have been among Idaho’s best in that category, a major contribution to Idaho’s penalty Kill that had killed off 29 consecutive disadvantages heading into Wednesday night’s contest with the Alaska Aces.
“It’s impressive. It’s a bit of an unheralded position with what they do because they’re not necessarily getting goals,” said Gord. “But they’ve completely bought in to what they do and they take a lot of pride in keeping other teams’ top lines off the score sheet and making sure our penalty kill is shutting things down.”
“They want to block shots. You can get in the lane and a puck will hit you, but to do it every day you need to want it to hit you. These guys take pride in blocking shots.”
Shot-blocking is more than just a skill. It requires a willingness to accept pain.
“I think you need to commit to it. Anyone has the ability to block a shot,” said Corbin. “I had a coach say once that it’s just a piece of rubber.”
That might be the most misleading statement of all time, but the willingness to make that sacrifice is contagious throughout a lineup. The Steelheads and their staff identified the final four minutes of the second period as a turning point during Saturday night’s nail-biting shootout victory in Atlanta. Idaho killed off back-to-back penalties, blocking a dozen shots in the process. Boutin and Baldwin were responsible for half.
“Killing a penalty can be a huge momentum boost for your team, so blocking shots and clearing out bodies is something we take pride in,” said Boutin.
Corbin added, ““That starts with the forwards. We have a good group of killers willing to block shots. The boys get fired up and it doesn’t go unnoticed. Back-to-back blocked shots and clearing a puck gets the bench pumped up and everybody knows it matters.”
The Steelheads have gotten strong play from numerous forward lines, with obvious chemistry building amongst Rob Linsmayer, Jefferson Dahl, and Emil Molin, as well as between Kyle Jean and Andre Morrissette. Though it doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score, that same kind of chemistry exists between defense partners, especially when they spend most of the day up against the other team’s top scorers.
”When you look at a forward line, there are three guys and if one guy is having an off-night the others can pick him up,” said Graham “For the defense, it’s just you and your partner. You have to find a way to bring it every night, and that’s what they do every night. They know each other’s tendencies in the D zone and they’ve been very steady.”
“At five-on-five, everything they do they do together,” Gord added. “They take rushes together, they stay tight, and they go back and break-out pucks together. Every play and every pass stems from their d-partner.”
Naturally, Corbin and Boutin are quick to point out that they are not the only unit on the PK having success and that they are not the only pairing playing top competition most shifts.
“You always kind of look and see where the other team’s leading scorers are and you take pride in having an opportunity to shut them down, but everyone is,” said Corbin.
But it is impressive, with the amount of time they play against top scorers and the consistency of the penalty kill, just how few dents there are in the armor of “Boots and Baldy”.
Still, and without question, this team as a whole has dramatically improved defensively from the start of the season. Idaho averaged just 1.8 goals-against per game in their last ten contests before Wednesday night’s game. It has been an overall improvement in the defensive zone.
“It’s not just them, it’s everybody,” said Gord. “You can’t just have two or three guys playing the right way, it needs to be everybody. As they’ve bought into it, everyone else has too. They lead and then others lead.”