The Steelheads open their final home series of the regular season on Wednesday night with a chance to clinch their 20th consecutive playoff spot, as the first-place Colorado Eagles roll into town for what could very possibly be a playoff preview.
The Steelheads are fairly well entrenched in third place in the division, still mathematically able to climb the standings further but sitting nine points back of the second place Allen Americans and 11 points ahead of the fourth place Alaska Aces. A win over their final six games or a regulation loss by either the Missouri Mavericks or the Aces would clinch a spot for Idaho.
The Eagles enter the season guaranteed to make the playoffs, but not certain of who they will face first. Once comfortably atop the Mountain Division, back-to-back losses have now brought the Americans within three points of the division’s number-one seed with a game in hand. Thus, the Steelheads would be travelling to Allen for the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, but a strong week against the Eagles could in fact contribute to a first-round visit to Loveland instead.
The team isn’t focused on matchups two weeks down the road. For now it will be about punching their ticket and hoping to extend their winning streak to three games.
Idaho took two of three games from the Nailers in Wheeling, with linemates Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer again leading the way offensively. Dahl earned a three-point weekend, including Saturday’s game-winner, and has six goals and 14 points in his last 13 games. Linsmayer carries a seven-game points streak into Wednesday night, and over the last 13 games he has totaled seven goals and 17 points.
Anthony Luciani is approaching rare territory, scoring his 29th goal of the season on Saturday night to establish a new personal best. Only nine players in Steelheads ECHL history have cracked the 30-goal mark, with only Mark Derlago doing it more than once.
Landon Bow returned to Idaho from AHL Texas and picked up right where he left off, earning back-to-back wins to finish the weekend and moving into the top ranking in the ECHL with a 2.18 goals-against average. Bow has held opponents to two goals or less in nine of his past 11 games.
The Eagles surged to the top of the division with a 17-game winning streak from January 25th to March 3rd, the second-longest winning streak in ECHL history. On its face it was an impressive run, but even more so because they lost then-leading goal-scorer Jesse Mychan the day before the streak began when the forward chose to go to play in Europe. Eight games later, Josh Nicholls left as well.
The Eagles continued on their roll, only recently slowing down with consecutive losses busting up a five-game winning streak. Casey Pierro-Zabotel has led the Eagles in scoring all season and has two goals and eleven points in his last six games to raise his points total for the season to 87. Matt Register is the league’s leading scorer among defensemen with 62 points in 67 games, and he has three goals and seven points in his last nine contests.
Matt Garbowsky has arguably been Colorado’s best player since the New Year, now ranked third in the league in scoring behind only Pierro-Zabotel and Allen’s Chad Costello. Garbowsky has 35 goals, one back of the league lead, and 78 points in 67 games.
The Eagles may be without goaltender Clarke Saunders for series, after he was called up to AHL San Jose on Monday. That leaves the Eagles with Lukas Hafner and Kent Simpson between the pipes, who have combined to go 14-7-0 this season for Colorado compared to Saunders’ 28-7-1.
The Steelheads are 4-3-1 this season against the Eagles and won two of three during the only other series at CenturyLink Arena this season. Yet that series concluded with Idaho’s most lopsided defeat of the season, a 9-3 decision on January 14th.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
Will Merchant has had a strong rookie season with 20 goals and 47 points, currently tied for ninth in rookie scoring in the ECHL. With linemates Rob Linsmayer and Jefferson Dahl rolling, Merchant has joined them with two goals and four points over the weekend in Wheeling. Merchant had gone eight games without a goal prior to his Wednesday tally, his longest drought of the season. Merchant broke through on the power play, his primary area of expertise this season with 12 power play goals to rank second among all rookies. Merchant has collected three goals and seven points in seven games against the Eagles this season.
EAGLE TO WATCH
Matt Garbowsky has been among the ECHL’s most prolific scorers since New Year’s Day. In 36 games in 2017, Garbowsky has totaled 27 goals and 56 points, leading the ECHL in scoring over that time frame. Garbosky’s dominant run also includes four hat tricks, all coming in a ten-game span in January. One of those came in a five-point performance against the Steelheads at CenturyLink Arena on January 14th. Garbowsky also boasts five power play goals and four shorthanded goals on the season.KEY MATCHUP
The Steelheads will have to counter the Eagles’ speed and snarl, and the new top defense pairing unveiled over the weekend could play a big part in that. Corbin Baldwin and Justin Hache, who played his first two games as a Steelhead, were physically dominant in their two games together against the Nailers and a major reason that the Steelheads were perfect on the penalty kill on both Friday and Saturday. Matt Garbowsky and Casey Pierro-Zabotel will likely see a healthy dose of Baldwin and Hache, but the Steelheads ability to control one of the best blue line attacks in the league with Matt Register and Jake Marto will also be important. Look for Hache and Baldwin, in Hache’s first game in Boise as a Steelhead, to set the pace in locking down the middle of the ice and winning the board battles.