There’s a lot that can happen in two games, let alone just one.The Idaho Steelheads learned that first-hand during their final home weekend of the regular season when slipping to fifth in the Mountain Division for the first time this season after last Wednesday’s loss and wins by two other teams on the same night. After Friday’s win, the Steelheads saw themselves back to having the third-most points in the division, but they moved into a share of fourth place after slipping in the home finale that left a bitter taste.
“At times, we looked a little nervous,” said Everett Sheen, second-year Head Coach for the Steelheads. “We were gripping the sticks a little too tight. I think we wanted it so bad that we got in our own way a little bit. It would have made our lives a lot easier if we had taken care of business last weekend.”With two games remaining and a maximum of three across the division, there are four teams left in contention for three remaining playoff spots: Allen, Idaho, Rapid City and Tulsa. The Utah Grizzlies clinched at worst second place by the end of the weekend and is the only team to clinch a spot in the postseason. If the season were to end today, the Steelheads would be on the outside looking in because of win percentage.With the division so wide open, the ECHL is headed into some unique territory.There is a possibility that the Mountain Division winner can finish the regular season with a record below a .600 win percentage, which doesn’t sound nearly as unique unless you know your league history. The last time that happened was 10 years ago during the 2011-12 season when the Kalamazoo Wings won the North Division with a .583 win percentage. This has happened specifically six times in the league’s 33-year history, however all but one season has seen this with a four-team division: 2006-07, when the Dayton Bombers took the seven-team North Division with a .576 win percentage.There are only two teams eligible to win the division title, but both teams could see themselves share the top spot. The Grizzlies have a four-point lead but could slip behind the Rapid City Rush, who also still have the potential to slip out of the playoff picture if they are unable to win, and the Steelheads could have a part in that.To say the division’s outcome is volatile would be an understatement, and it backs up the continual expectation of the division’s reputation.“It’s a physical and grinding division. Every team can beat any other team on any given night. We saw that on Sunday night against Allen. They haven’t been playing good hockey but they can still beat any team in our division. There are really no basement dwellers.”“Everyone has done a good job in bringing in talent,” said fifth-year forward Will Merchant. “The Mountain Division has always been a tough division and physical, and that has remained true. Now, everyone has a good solid team playing the right way.”
For the Steelheads to clinch a postseason position, they’ll need to earn positive results and get a little help from other teams also fighting for their playoff lives. A loss by Allen tonight against a young Iowa Heartlanders team could give the Steelheads a chance to truly control their own destiny. Should the Oilers only earn three of six points this week, the Steelheads guarantee a spot via a tie-breaker if they win both games. There’s even a scenario that the Rush would be on the outside looking in if they are swept in regulation through all three games if the Steelheads win both and the Americans earn at least five of six points.Funny enough, all three of those teams begin their final weekends tonight.But that’s just it: the Steelheads still need to win both games for these scenarios to happen as described. There are other scenarios—they’re too complicated to list here—that can see a playoff berth with a weekend split, but as learned last weekend, the easiest road to the postseason is winning your own games first and keeping that the focus.“You have to know where you’re at,” said Captain A.J. White, on the prospect of scoreboard-watching. “The main goal is obviously our group first, so as long as we do what we have to do, we’re going to be fine. That’s the big reason why nobody [on the team] is paying attention to what’s going on outside of our locker room.”A RESILIENT GROUPThe Steelheads have had to battle adversity throughout the season starting from before the first drop of the puck. After opting out of the 2020-21 season—the only Mountain Division team not to play in the 2021-22 season—the Steelheads only saw five regular players from previous seasons in the lineup and six that have adorned a Steelheads uniform, something that hasn’t happened in years for one of the best retention-rated teams in the ECHL. Now, that number is down to just two players after mid-season roster turnover.After the first two games of the year and an electric 7-3 win on home ice during Opening Night, the Steelheads dropped four of their next five contests with losses in all three games on the road while also being held to just seven goals in five games. Immediately following that stint, the Steelheads won five of six games and went on a run from November 7 through December 19 that saw an earned 15-8-0-1 record heading into the holiday break. That’s points in 16 of 24 games, or 66.7 percent of contests, after starting the season 3-4-0-0.Then, the NHL announced the return of the NHL Taxi Squads for a two-month period coming out of the holiday break, and positive cases of COVID-19 ramped up across the league. The Steelheads lost six players to the AHL, including four that went directly to the Texas Stars that saw the likes of Will Merchant, forward Yauheni Aksiantsiuk and goaltender Matt Jurusik, among others, make long stints at the next level. During the return weekend, injuries plagued the team and created another hurdle that would eventually lead to a four-game skid.The Steelheads responded with wins in three of four games and earning points in nine of 10 games at home with an 8-1-1-0 record. In that home stretch, there was even a time with losses in four of six on the road that was then followed up by a season-best five-game win streak and six-game point streak. In March, the Steelheads followed up a six-game losing skid with a four-game win streak and wins in five of six while snapping the slide.When there’s been a challenge this year, the Steelheads have learned to face that and overcome. That’s been the make-up of this team since the team was formed over the summer.“I’ve said it all year: this is a resilient group,” said Sheen. “We’ve had some stumbling blocks, like with the NHL Taxi Squad and the roster turnover at that time, but we’ve been competitive every single night, and we’ve bounced back when we’ve needed to at times.”The Steelheads are coming off of losses in four of their last six games over two weeks against two of the better teams in the ECHL. The Florida Everblades are tied for the lead in the South Division, and their 90 points this season rank second in the Eastern Conference as well as third in the ECHL. The Grizzlies, who played last season and also made the postseason, sit tied for second in the Western Conference, the only one of the two conferences that had every team eligible for a playoff spot heading into the final two weeks of the season.
Compared to others fighting for a playoff spot like Allen, who will have only faced the bottom three teams in the Western Conference, the Steelheads are in the midst of the hardest road to the postseason across the Mountain Division in a three-week stretch. Competition has been at its peak throughout the season, and the final weeks have not changed that.But this is not a unique scenario for the Steelheads when looking at the broad story of the season, and many teams across the ECHL have felt this roller coaster effect. The difference is the response that has come each time adversity is on their doorstep.“Whenever we get faced with adversity, we challenge it, accept it and want to play through it,” said Merchant. “That’s one big thing we’ve gotten through this year. We had a difficult stretch about a month ago and won four games coming out of it. When you get the chance, you’ve got to stack them up and keep going.”“The groups in year’s past have all been about highs and lows and how you respond,” said White. “We’ve had tough weeks here and there throughout this season, and we always find a way to keep bouncing back.”A TALE OF TWO LOCATIONSOne of those challenges facing the Steelheads this weekend comes in the situation the team find themselves in, and that’s simply playing away from home.The Steelheads have been one of the best teams in the ECHL at home, sharing a 25-10-1-0 record and a .708 win percentage with the Atlanta Gladiators. That’s good for the most wins at home across the ECHL this season just behind the Toledo Walleye and Fort Wayne Komets in overall win percentage with one fewer win but one more point earned. The performance at home is tied for the most wins by the Steelheads in the ECHL era, sharing that mark with their 25-win seasons during the 102-point season in 2014-15 as well as the team-record 103-point campaign in 2009-10, both of which were the only two times the team has won their respective division.
Part of that is attributed to the support shown at home. For the first time in franchise history, the Steelheads broke 180,000 fans in a single season, and a 5,009-fan average attendance at Idaho Central Arena is the first time in team history that the Steelheads have finished with over a 100 percent capacity average. The season attendance has been better than the first and third seasons in the WCHL era, which were the former top-two seasons.Compared to many other buildings, the home ice advantage for the Steelheads is palpable.“Our atmosphere in here is incredible,” said Sheen. “You don’t always get that on the road. You go into some pretty quiet buildings. It’s hard not to get up for any games when the place is rocking, and you can almost fall asleep in some of the quieter buildings.”The road has been a different story. The Steelheads are currently 11-21-1-1 in road contests with two games remaining, which is the second-lowest number of wins ahead of only the South Carolina Stingrays at 10 wins. The team has only taken one weekend series: November 10-13 in Rapid City, when they took two of three contests. Since then, the Steelheads have earned at least a split in one other road weekend to kick off February as part of a three-in-three in Wichita, during which the team took three of six points.The biggest challenge has been re-creating that energy to feed off when playing in buildings that don’t have the same electricity as Idaho Central Arena.“At home, we’re a bit more comfortable,” said White. “We play to our game style and make teams play how we want to play. When we go to other teams and rinks, we get away from our playing style.“Going into a place like Utah, we know what we need to do to have success. We’ve had success there as well, so it’s really just focusing on ourselves and not about the other team.”THE ROAD AHEADThe final weekend of the season for the Mountain Division begins tonight with Rapid City hosting Tulsa and Allen taking on Iowa. The Steelheads will not play until Friday and Saturday, and though there’s no chance of being eliminated before they take the ice in Utah, the team will at least know where they stand compared to the rest of the landscape and if they’ll need additional help from other teams to secure their spot.
For the team, their focus will be at the task at hand against the Grizzlies. The Steelheads and Grizzlies have split their first 14 games against each other down the middle with seven wins each. The last time the Steelheads went to Utah was in the middle of January as part of a six-game series that the teams also split down the middle. However, the only other two-game weekend in Utah was the first weekend of the season, and the Steelheads earned a split in those two games.The most important message inside the locker room heading into the week has been focusing on the day at hand and not looking ahead. It’s easy to get lost in the scenarios and potential forecast at the end of the weekend over a long week, but while fans can debate the situation all day and night, the team is tuning it out.“That’s the echo of the message going into practice, just taking one practice at a time and building up into the weekend. We’ve got to make sure we take care of business on Friday to make sure Saturday is still an option for us.”The best path to the postseason still remains in the hands of the Steelheads knowing the roller coaster of a season it has been and the ever-changing landscape of the Mountain Division. The stakes have been set, the information has been laid out in the open, and all that can be helped is what lies ahead in the next four days. All eyes will be on the team no matter the results in Utah, but the eyes of the team will be looking ahead looking to control only the factors that they can control.Many have counted the team out, but there’s a lot that can change in two games. It’s just another battle in the story of the season with one clear message from Sheen.“Just go leave it out there. We really have nothing to save it for. Just put our best foot forward, control what we can control, and see how it shakes out.”