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Playoffs clinched, but Steelheads not done

Wednesday, March 28th
Playoffs clinched, but Steelheads not done

The Steelheads have checked the first big item off of their to-do list, but there is still work to be done.

The Idaho Steelheads making the playoffs has become one of the few things in life that hockey fans can depend on, with the Steelheads heading to the post-season for the 21st time in 21 seasons following their sweep of the Rapid City Rush last week. The Steelheads own the longest active playoff streak in pro hockey, and although no one on the team has played a part in all 21 berths, it’s still an accomplishment that carries weight in the locker room.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s something I’ve realized more this season than in others, that it’s something to be proud of and it’s not something that’s easy,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham. “I know the expectations and I know how many years in a row it has happened. I’ve never looked at it as added pressure, but I also never really recognized the accomplishment.”

“This year I have, for our players’ sake and the work they put in and the amount of turnover we’ve had on our roster. I’m very proud of the resiliency we’ve had in that locker room, start to finish, and we’ve set ourselves up for another post-season.”

It took 66 games for the Steelheads to become the second Mountain Division to clinch a playoff spot, after it took 67 games a year ago to guarantee playoff hockey. And while the Steelheads now know they’ll be working towards a bigger prize in June - a third Kelly Cup Championship - they still have meaningful hockey over their final five games of the regular season.

The Steelheads’ final five games are all against teams knotted in the fight for the final two playoff spots in the division. The Utah Grizzlies are sixth in the division, but just four points back of the tied Allen Americans and Tulsa Oilers. The Americans and Oilers are only four points behind third-place Wichita.

Any one of those teams could very well be Idaho’s opponent in the first round, and three of them will have to fight the Steelheads for much-needed points in the final two weeks.

“I know every game is going to be ‘do or die’ for them, and that’s how we need to take it as well,” said assistant captain Brady Brassart, recently honored as the ECHL’s Player of the Week.

“In the playoffs, it’s a series against the same team for possibly seven games. Every game means something, and that’s the way we need to look at it. The fact we’re facing all these teams that are fighting to get in just means they’ll be looking to steal points from us.”

The Steelheads can in many ways directly impact which team they will face in the first round, with points gained or lost in each of their last five games directly benefiting others in the race from third place through sixth. Likewise, a convincing showing in a game over the last two weeks may send a message should that same squad be across the ice for Game 1 of the Mountain Division Semifinal.

Despite expecting good results, Graham doesn’t necessarily expect any of those results to directly affect a post-season series.

“Playoffs are going to be a different animal. It’s more about us and playing the right way,” said Graham. “There are still some season series that are tight. We have a very tight season series against Utah and a very tight season series against Allen. You want to win series, so that’s motivation in and of itself. But it’s more about what we’re doing as a group in our preparation leading up to the post-season.”

With that in mind, it is a good time of year to have some top players performing at their best. Brassart earned league-wide recognition after collecting five points in two games last week. His line with Steve McParland and Justin Parizek has arguably been Idaho’s best this season, with McParland one goal shy of his 30th and Parizek ranked third in the league in rookie scoring.

“We have a great team and all year I’ve played with great players. I’ve been fortunate enough to get some pretty good bounces, and I can’t thank those guys enough,” said Brassart. “The points come when you’re doing things right and I think for the most part over the last little bit we’ve played well as a line. We’ve been generating some good chances in the offensive zone and playing smart defensively.”

The Steelheads want to make sure they’re doing all the little things right over the final five games. Clinching a playoff spot early has its benefits, as Idaho will now look to perfect every aspect of their game while playing opponents who remain in desperation mode.

“We have five games left and we want to play good, consistent hockey. Wins and losses aside, we want to continue working on our details and tighten some areas without being robots on the ice,” said Graham. “I think we’re doing a real nice job of recognizing when to be aggressive in our transition and aggressive in the offensive zone and when we need to take a breath and minimize the transition of the opposition.”

“We’ve done that of late and that’s why we’ve had success of late. That’s our mindset over the last five, and I think if we continue to do that, the body of work will be there and we’ll be playing the right way going into the post-season.”

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