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SERIES PREVIEW: Western Conference Quarterfinals

Thursday, April 14th
SERIES PREVIEW: Western Conference Quarterfinals

The Steelheads will begin their quest for their third Kelly Cup against a team that won their first Kelly Cup just a season ago, the Allen Americans. The defending-champion Americans are looking to capture a championship for the fourth straight season after winning CHL championships in 2013 and 2014 and then winning the Kelly Cup in their first season in the ECHL. The Steelheads hope to get off to a good start on the road in Allen for Game 1 and Game 2

The Steelheads and Americans met for the first time this season, with the Steelheads going 2-1-1 in the four contests. Both teams won a game beyond regulation in the other’s building, with the Steelheads getting an overtime winner from Cole Ully in Allen on December 13th and the Americans earning a shootout win at CenturyLink Arena on December 19th. That was the last time the two teams met, and now they prepare for their first ever playoff series.

Forwards: The Steelheads will face a significant scoring punch in the first round, and you can’t talk about Allen’s offense without discussing First Team All-ECHLer Chad Costello. Costello is coming off his second consecutive league scoring title, racking up 103 points in 72 games this season. Costello led the league in assists with 79 and power play points with 40. One of the best distributors in the league, to stop Costello you must also stop the players around him. Gary Steffes was Allen’s second leading goal-scorer behind Costello, netting 22 goals and 45 points on the year. There’s a tremendous drop-off in production between Costello and the next highest point-getter- Casey Pierro-Zabotel’s 47 points- but that’s more an indication of Costello’s prolific production than Allen’s lack of depth. The Americans currently have seven forwards with ten goals or more.

The Steelheads may not have a 100-point man, but they do boast just as deep a roster, if not more so, in terms of scoring depth. Rob Linsmayer led the Steelheads with 36 assists and 57 points, while Emil Molin shared the team-lead with 22 goals in only 54 games to go along with a plus-22 rating. Though the Steelheads were forced to do without Jefferson Dahl in the final weeks of the season, there are plenty of options to pick up the scoring slack. Kyle Jean rides a three-game goal-scoring streak into post-season play and hasn’t gone more than one game without at least a point in the past 20 contests. Joe Basaraba netted 10 goals and 20 points over his final 20 games. With solid two-way play from Carson McMillan and the lower ends of the forward depth chart in the second half of the season, Idaho can hope to have an advantage over an Allen forward corps that was a minus-14 this season.

Defense: The Allen defense corps is part of a full-steam ahead offensive attack, and they have the right personnel for it. David Makowski finished seventh in defensive scoring this season with 17 goals and 38 points. Matt Register, acquired late in the season from Atlanta, ranks 12th with 37 points. Looking beyond the numbers, rookie defenseman Eric Roy is arguably the team’s best blue liner with 14 goals and 30 points in 56 games, numbers limited by a lengthy call-up to AHL Lake Erie. His plus-11 rating leads the team by far.

The success of Idaho’s defense will be judged largely by its shutdown ability, an area where Corbin Baldwin and Shawn Boutin can expect to see a lot of Costello and Friends. Baldwin’s plus-28 rating in the regular season was third best among ECHL defenseman and partner Boutin wasn’t far behind with a plus-20 over the season’s final 44 games. The Steelhead’s are at their best when they transition that strong defense into quick strike scoring chances, where the skating ability of Tommy Fallen, Zack Kamrass, and Zach Yuen becomes key. Zach Bell will be a key factor in setting the physical tone of what will likely be a grinding series.

Goaltending: Joel Rumpel and Riley Gill carried much of the load in nets this season for the Americans, but it was rookie late-comer Jake Hildebrand who took over for much of the homestretch of the season. Hildebrand, who signed at the end of Michigan State’s post-season run just a few weeks ago, started six of Allen’s final seven games. He was 5-1-0 with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.

The Steelheads have Philippe Desorsiers and Branden Komm in the nets. Komm was 4-4-1 with Idaho after coming over from South Carolina in a mid-season trade, with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. Desrosiers returned to Idaho from AHL Texas in late February and continued one of the more impressive goaltending runs in Steelheads history. Desrosier went unbeaten in regulation for 16 straight starts, going 12-0-4 from December 13th to April 8th for the longest streak of any Steelheads goaltender in the ECHL era.

Special Teams: Playoff series so often come down to which team capitalizes on advantages and both of these teams have been lock-down penalty killing teams. Idaho and Allen finished second and third in penalty killing this season and were separated by .1 percentage points. The Steelheads focus on clogging the neutral zone and denying zone entries, then shot-blocking within their own zone. Allen brings heavy pressure on the forecheck, looking to force mistakes they can turn into odd-man rushes. The Steelheads will need to move the puck quickly on the points.

While Idaho’s power play struggled down the stretch, Allen’s was the league’s best man-advantage at 21.1 percent. Allen scored power play goals in four of their last six games and do have the league’s leading power play scorer in Costello and multiple big shots on the blue line. The Steelheads penalty kill has been strong all year long, but they’d be wise to keep that power play unit off the ice as much as they can.

Swing Factor: The Americans score in droves when they can exploit a fast and loose game, run-and-gun through the neutral zone and use their power play to their advantage. A team that boasts high scoring totals, but on which nearly every player has a minus rating, means they rely on their top-ranked power play to create. The Steelheads like a fast game too, but based out of their structure and the mistakes they can force in the neutral zone. The first two games will be all about patience for Idaho on the road, calm in the face of chaos to turn Allen’s aggressiveness into transition chances the other way.

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