The Idaho Steelheads needed to grab at least one of the first two games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal in Allen to position themselves favorably for this week’s three game swing at CenturyLink Arena. With a 3-1 win in Game 1 over the Allen Americans, the Steelheads did just that.
And although the Steelheads temporarily have set themselves up with home-ice advantage for the series heading into Wednesday night, the response from the Americans in Game 2 and a 3-1 defeat makes tomorrow’s contest a battle for the momentum of the series.
“After you win the first game, you get greedy and you want that second game. Allen is a very good hockey team and we knew they were going to come out desperate,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham following Tuesday afternoon’s practice.
“They played us very hard. We went over a few things today and made a few tweaks systematically that we think will instill some life and some good energy in the guys.”
It’s a series that already has provided plenty of energy between two teams that had never met before this season and during the year met only four times in the span of two weeks. The first two games were filled with scraps and jostling after the whistles, including a gathering following the final buzzer on Saturday night that will almost certainly carry over to Game 3.
“Of course it carries over because they have big guys and so do we,” said Steelheads captain Carson McMillan, referencing the bad blood built between the teams over the past week.“Come playoff time, everyone is physical.”
“I expect it to be physical with the odd fight here and there,” added Graham. “There’s so much on the line and everyone wants to win so badly on both teams that it’ll bring out the best of both teams.”
And while the physical edge has stood out for both teams through two games, the most important element for Idaho’s defense will be its execution on the defensive side of the puck. The Steelheads suffocated the Americans for long stretches of Game 1 on their way to a perfect road win, but in Game 2 the Americans found some more room to maneuver in another tight game and held the upper hand.
“Even in Game 2, they got two goals on the power play and got one off of a breakdown in front of our net which is uncharacteristic of us,” said Graham. “Our defensive zone has been tight and we’ve gone over a lot of video of the offensive things that they do. They are a very offensive, dynamic team.”
The Steelheads will have an easier time creating offense if they stay committed on defense, with the turnovers created leading to scoring chances just like they did in Game 1.
“As long as we’re responsible on the defensive side of the puck, we’ll get our chances offensively,” said Graham. “We just need to fight them hard to ensure we get those chances.”
To what extent does returning home benefit the Steelheads? In terms of X’s and O’s and the kind of Americans team they expect to see, the Steelheads don’t anticipate much to change.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, especially in the playoffs,” said McMillan, whose team won 19 games both home and on the road this season. “Teams are playing hard every night and it can depend on who plays more desperate in a given game.”
One benefit the Steelheads can expect compared to the series’ first two games is a much more energetic atmosphere inside CenturyLink Arena.
“Our guys are consistent and play hard wherever they are, but it’s nice to be back home and it’s going to be a great atmosphere in the arena,” said Graham. “We get unreal support from our loyal fans here in Boise. But at the end of the day our mission can’t change no matter where we are.”
And all season long, no matter where the Steelheads have hit the ice, the team mantra has been the same.
“It’s a one game at a time mentality.”