Back in early October, as the Steelheads rolled into town for the first days of training camp, many of the returning players spoke of ‘unfinished business’, how they felt their season had been cut short the previous April in Allen when they could have accomplished more.
The Steelheads have done a pretty good job tending to that unfinished business in the early weeks of this season, sitting in first place in the Mountain Division and going 8-2-1 in their past 11 games. But Friday will be their first opportunity this season to face the team that cut last year’s playoff push short, their first meeting with the Allen Americans.
“I think we have to take it like any other weekend. Regardless of who we play we know it’s always going to be a tough game in this league,” said Joe Basaraba, who tied for the team lead in last year’s playoffs with seven points in seven games. “Obviously we have some history. They being the team that knocked us out last year, of course we want to take it to them.”
The Steelheads were 2-1-1 last year in the regular season against Allen, the first season in which the two teams met, but the real history between the teams was built during a seven-game playoff series that came down to a final bounce. In overtime of Game 7 at Allen Event Center, Tristan King’s centering pass ricocheted off a Steelheads skate and into the net to send the Steelheads home for the summer.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little extra excitement. They have a very good team and they always do,” said Head Coach Neil Graham. “They eliminated us from playoffs last year, and while every game is big and it is still so early yet, there is a bit of added excitement to face a team that eliminated us last year.”
The Americans have gotten off to somewhat of a slow start to their season, despite boasting a good deal of returning talent from last season’s championship team. Chad Costello is again scoring at above a point-per-game pace, while players like Gary Steffes, Greger Hanson, and Tristan King remain. High-scoring defenseman Eric Roy is also back with Allen, as is three-time Kelly Cup Champion goaltender Riley Gill.
Despite Allen’s 7-9-0 record heading into their Wednesday night contest in Utah, the Steelheads know they are facing a top-caliber team in the ECHL.
“Last year they didn’t get out to a glowing start. They were finding their groove and that’s how they do it,” said Graham. “You can never take that team lightly. They have a lot of returners from back-to-back Kelly Cups. You can throw their record out the window.”
Unlike last season, these two teams now share a division, meaning the path to a third Kelly Cup for both of these teams may very well run through each other thanks to the ECHL’s new playoff format. As a whole, players and coaches believed that it was premature to rate the “rivalry factor” of this matchup, regardless of the bad blood developed in 2015-16. Still, fans can expect two hard-fought games between two rosters that know each other well.
“Down the stretch they’re always a good team, and we’d like to think that we are, too,” said Basaraba. “Whether we’re meeting them this weekend or somewhere down the road in playoffs, we know it’s going to be a tough battle.”