We’ve reached that point late in a season, when Steelheads fans following the team’s journey towards the playoffs are just as busy with a calculator, pen, and paper as they are with the remote or computer mouse. With the Steelheads already guaranteed a spot in the 2016 US Bank Kelly Cup Playoffs, there is still a West Division title and guaranteed home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs up for grabs. Heading into Game 70, the race is tighter than it has been all season.
The Steelheads, the Utah Grizzlies, and the Colorado Eagles are in a three-way tie for the division lead, with the Steelheads and Eagles ready to play three more regular season games to Utah’s two. The Steelheads and Grizzlies can still finish anywhere between second and eighth in the Conference, and the Eagles can finish anywhere between second and seventh. Regardless, it’s entirely possible two of these three teams will square off in the first round of the playoffs.
How heavily does all this math weigh on Steelheads players preparing for their final road game of the regular season in Rapid City? Not as much as you might think.
“We have to play the best in the West to finish first,” said Steelheads leading scorer Rob Linsmayer. “It doesn’t matter who we play in the first round. A division title would be great but if that’s not how it works out, it’s not what the season was all about. It’s not about a division title, it’s about a championship.”
And for the Steelheads to reach their Kelly Cup goal, it’s going to require them to be playing at their best. It’s been a challenging two weeks for Idaho, 1-2-3 in their past six games. Head Coach Neil Graham and his players believe the team has done a lot of good things, but have been hurt by some of the mistakes in the middle of games. A strong finish to the season, against a team that has played the Steelheads tough and the ECHL’s best squad, would prime the Steelheads for playoff hockey regardless of what the final standings say.
“I think we deserve to win the division and I think we’ve played the majority of the year like we should. But I think snapping out of this funk we’ve been in would be just as important as winning the division,” said Linsmayer. “If Colorado wins all three, they’ll win the division no matter what we do. If they do but we win all three, that’ll be fine because we’ll have righted the ship and taken care of ourselves.”
There are lots of X’s and O’s that go into every hockey game, and that won’t change this week either. But for the Steelheads to get back in the win column in this final week, a consistent mentality will be just as important.
“We have to simplify things to make the game easier on us. We need to stop worrying about making plays and scoring goals,” said captain Carson McMillan. “Just simplify and know that when you play good defense and keep things simple, offense will come.”
The Steelheads want to take it a day at a time and do what they have done all season- focus on the game at hand. Still, there will be value for the Steelheads to play three games with playoff positioning at stake every night. The Steelheads clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday, but were not in serious danger of falling out of the post-season picture in recent weeks.
In fact, with as well as the team has played since mid-December, there haven’t been many games in the second half of the season that carried a sense of desperation or pressure. The Steelheads and Grizzlies have battled each other shot for shot over the last three months for first in the division, but rarely did that competition incorporate other teams or other stakes. Now the entire conference playoff picture is in flux, and the Steelheads will get to practice their craft under a bit more pressure.
“It helps to finish out the season playing our hardest and trying to fight for the highest playoff seed we can get,” said McMillan. “It’s maybe better to go through a bit of a rough patch before getting into the playoffs. I think we’re still playing good hockey but maybe a few bounces can go our way.”
And through the rough patch and a challenging finish to the schedule, the Steelheads will be gunning for first. If they can’t finish on top, they expect to be playing their best brand of hockey anyway.
“There are three games left and obviously we want six points. Winning the division shows we had a good season but going into the playoffs it won’t really matter,” said McMillan. “We always want to win, but when it comes down to playoffs the best team will win. It doesn’t matter where you place, but how you play.”