The Idaho Steelheads open the doors to CenturyLink Arena for the 20th time when they host the Utah Grizzlies on Friday night, kicking off a five-game home stand for the Steelheads. The back-to-back skates with the Grizzlies will be the final two meetings between the rivals until the teams meet again in mid-January. They both deserve a rest from one another after opening the schedule with four consecutive meetings, six counting exhibition.
The Steelheads hope to give Utah a taste of its own medicine after the Grizzlies took each of the first two games of the season against Idaho, a 4-1 win in their own home opener at Maverik Center followed by a 3-0 shutout win on Saturday night.
Neither team has played a game since, meaning both will be rested and ready to go for the first puck-drop on Front Street. The Steelheads spoke often during practice this week about raising the intensity level of their game, doing everything a little bit harder and little bit quicker. That should help them to increase their offensive output, after defenseman Joe Faust notched the only goal of last weekend.
It also speaks to the Steelheads getting their offense going earlier in games. Idaho dominated possession in third periods both nights, with 18 on Friday night and 17 Saturday. It’s a spike in activity from the first 40 minutes of games, where the Steelheads have combined to register 27 shots in the first two periods of both contests with no goals.
The Grizzlies thus far have gotten strong production from some of their returning players. CJ Eick, who joined the Grizzlies at the end of last season from Michigan Tech, scored two goals for the Grizzlies last Friday. Jon Puskar had nine goals all of last season for Utah, but enters the weekend with goals in each of the season’s first two games. Newcomers Jordan Samuels-Thomas and rookie Shane Walsh have also been effective early for Utah, with both players recording a goal and an assist last weekend.
As early in the season as it may be, it is an important weekend for the Steelheads. First, it’s two more games against a divisional rival and a chance to close a four-point gap in the standings. Second, it’s an opportunity to take a clean slate and gain confidence when playing on home ice, a chance for the Steelheads to string together points at home in October before heading back on the road.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
The Steelheads expect offense from their returning players, as well as from accomplished newcomers like Anthony Luciani and Caleb Herbert. But one player who saw his ice time and responsibility increase throughout the weekend was rookie forward Connor Chatham, a former New Jersey Devils draft pick out of the OHL who threw his weight around in Utah. Chatham started the weekend as a tenth forward, rotating through the lines but getting most of his ice-time on the penalty kill. Chatham was so effective killing penalties that he earned more regular opportunities in the second half of Saturday’s game. Chatham may afford himself a look this weekend with some playmakers to see if his heavy forechecking game can translate to offensive chances.
GRIZZLIES TO WATCH
The Grizzlies proved last week that they boast a strong goaltending tandem that will keep them in most games. Kevin Boyle led things off in the opener with 29 saves in his pro debut, the reigning Richter Award Finalist stopping 17 shots in the third period. The following night, Ryan Faragher did one better than Boyle with a shutout effort. The Steelheads got the better of Faragher numerous time last season but weren’t able to put enough pressure on him earlier in the game, one of the reasons the team spoke about a faster start against whichever goaltender is in net on Friday.
Both teams certainly had enough power play chances during the opening weekend, but neither team did nearly enough with them. The Steelheads lone goal came on the power play courtesy of Faust sneaking down from the point, and Samuels-Thomas capitalized on a man-advantage late in the game Friday. But that’s all Utah could muster on the weekend despite 14 power plays and two separate 5-on-3 advantages. Idaho was 1-for-11 on the power play. The Steelheads expect more offense in general as they move forward, with some of the same scoring threats expected to find their legs on the power play. It remains to be seen if the Steelheads penalty kill, which was ranked 2nd in the league last year, is just as good again. Thus far, they’re off to a good start.