By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Steelheads won a trophy Tuesday night at Qwest Arena, but the hockey team wanted nothing to do with it after the game. They’re hoping to drink from the Kelly Cup instead.
The Steelheads aced their latest test with a 3-2 win over the Alaska Aces. Idaho clinched the National Conference final series 4-1 and became the first team to secure a spot in the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals.
“We’re going to the dance,” Steelheads veteran Scott Burt said. “It’s fun right now, but we want one more.”
Idaho will play Dayton or Florida for the championship of the 25-team league. Dayton took a 3-2 series lead in the American Conference finals Tuesday night, with Game 6 scheduled for Thursday.
The Steelheads made it exciting to the end, as Burt scored the game-winner on a short-handed goal with 15:01 remaining. That set up a tense finish that included a penalty shot for Alaska that Idaho goalie Steve Silverthorn turned away with 5:07 remaining.
Idaho’s defense — and Silverthorn — stood tall the rest of the way to close it out.
“To win on a short-handed goal and then Steve Silverthorn stopped a penalty shot and then the guys managed not to panic — that’s a great tribute to our guys,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said.
The Bruce Taylor Trophy, awarded to National Conference champions, was on hand for a postgame celebration but, just like in 2004 when Idaho won it all, the Steelheads kept their distance from the trophy.
“We’ve won our conference,” Burt said, “but now we want to win the big one.”
The 2004 run came while former coach John Olver was leading the Steelheads. This time, Laxdal, in his second season, is at the helm.
“This puts my stamp on the Steelheads,” Laxdal said. “Now we have another job to do.”
Only the most diehard fan could have dreamed that the Steelheads would be in this position. Idaho entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the conference and proceeded to knock off Stockton (a No. 5 seed), Las Vegas (a No. 1 seed with the best regular-season record in the ECHL) and Alaska (a No. 2 seed that was playing in its third conference finals in a row.).
Alaska is the defending Kelly Cup champion.
“For us to beat three hockey clubs like that, it’s pretty special,” Laxdal said.
Alaska didn’t have long to enjoy its lead because Idaho center Greg Rallo scored 38 seconds later to knot the game at 1-1.
Idaho squandered a 6-minute power-play opportunity in the first period, but the Steelheads went up 2-1 early in the second when Tuomas Mikkonen took a pass from Lance Galbraith and took advantage of a wide-open right side of the net.
Then, 6:42 into the second, Aces forward Mike Scott made it a 2-2 game with a long shot from near the blue line.
The only goal left to be scored was Burt’s shortie. The veteran who has played more games than anyone in Steelheads history took a pass from Rallo at center ice and charged to the Aces’ net. Burt deked right, then shot left and Idaho had the lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
It was a huge goal for the veteran who felt like he was snake-bitten at times in the playoffs. Tuesday’s game-winner was his second score of the postseason.
“The guys have heckled me a bit for all the chances I’ve had and haven’t been able to bury,” Burt said. “It’s not just me who scored that goal. It’s every single guy in the dressing room.”
With 5 minutes remaining in the game, Alaska was awarded a penalty shot after defenseman Travis Wight closed his hand on the puck in the Steelheads crease. Silverthorn stopped Talbot’s shot and the crowd of 3,490 began to celebrate.
“We’d like … to be known as champions,” Burt said.
One more series win and the Steelheads will own that title.