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Steelheads finishing regular season with a playoff mentality

Friday, April 7th
Steelheads finishing regular season with a playoff mentality

As the Alaska Aces take the ice for the final three games of their regular-season, and possibly the final three games in their history, hockey fans in Anchorage will be piling into Sullivan Arena for a fond farewell and to push the Aces to one last playoff run. On Wednesday night, just under 3,000 fans were in attendance ready to shake the walls and rattle the seats in their hockey home.

The Steelheads just never gave them a reason to do so.

Branden Komm stopped 29 shots for the second straight shutout effort by him and his teammates, as the Steelheads made the Olympic ice feel small. Aces scorers like Peter Sivak and Stephen Perfetto found little room to work with as the Steelheads owned the middle of the ice from end to end.

“Defensively, and especially in this rink, we talked about keeping them to the outside,” said Steelheads’ defensemen Charlie Dodero. “It’s a big ice surface so there’s going to be room for them to skate, and they’re a fast team. It’s about keeping their shots to the outside and boxing out on every play so that they couldn’t get those scoring chances in tight.”

The Steelheads followed that game plan to the letter, as only a small handful of shots for the Aces came from between the circles in front of Komm and nearly none led to second-chance opportunities. When the Aces did try to get to the inside the Steelheads gave them reason to take pause, with Dodero leading by example.

In the second period, Aces forward Yan-Pavel Laplante skated down the right wing boards and tried to cut along the goal line to the front of the Idaho net. That’s where Dodero met him with a thunderous shoulder to the chest, sending Laplante sprawling and eventually back to the bench.

“In front of your own net, you don’t want there to be any easy ice,” said Dodero. “You want players to think twice before they come into the dirty areas because that’s where the goals are scored.”

Wednesday took on the characteristics of the quintessential “perfect road game”, with the Steelheads taking the crowd out of the contest, patiently waiting for the Aces to blink first and making the simple plays to ensure Alaska had nothing to exploit. The Steelheads suffocated an Aces attack built on speed. As the guaranteed third seed in the Mountain Division, the Steelheads know they’ll need that kind of composure in the first two games of the playoffs, which will be in either Allen or Colorado.

“I’m happy we’ve had success on the road and we know we can win at home or on the road. Wherever we start playoffs, it’s going to be playoff hockey,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham, whose team is 10-2-0 in its last 12 games away from CenturyLink Arena.

“It’s a whole new animal and the stakes are high. The level of compete and battle and speed are all elevated. We’ve been preparing over the last 20 games for this time of year. Whether it’s a road game or a home game, we know what’s about to come and it’s a challenge we’re going to embrace.”

The Steelheads will also expect their penalty kill, ranked second in the league, to remain one of the strongest elements of their game. On Wednesday night, the Steelheads killed off three penalties in the third period, surrendering just one shot across those three disadvantages.

“We have a good group of guys who commit and take pride in the penalty kill,” said Dodero. “When you have guys willing to lay down and sacrifice their body to kill a penalty late in a game when we’ve already clinched a playoff spot, I think that says a lot about our group.”

That commitment is one reason why the Steelheads haven’t surrendered a goal in 122:03, and their ability in the past three games to lock down the middle of the ice against a desperate Alaska team and a playoff-bound Colorado team is certainly the kind of structure necessary to win one-goal playoff games.

“Komm has played well and so has Landon Bow, but I think the five guys in front of them have also bought into limiting shots and Grade-A chances,” said Graham. “It’s important that team defense is at its best at this time of year and I think guys are really taking pride in the defensive side of the puck. That’s helped our transition game to create opportunities with numbers going the other way and playing in waves.”

The Steelheads will be headed to Allen or Loveland after the weekend, regardless of the results of Friday and Saturday night. Yet their methodical work on Wednesday in a hostile environment, and the silence that accompanied it, shows that the playoff mindset for Idaho is already well-underway.

“We’re treating this series like it’s a playoff series,” said Dodero. “Whether or not it means anything in the standings for us, you want to go into the playoffs playing the right way.”

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