Steelheads Begin Initial Finals Preparation

By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Steelheads are going to the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.

That was established Tuesday night when they defeated the defending champion Alaska Aces 3-2 to earn the National Conference championship.

Amidst the postgame celebration, however, Steelheads players and coach Derek Laxdal (pictured) were already looking ahead.

“It’s not over, obviously,” goalie Steve Silverthorn said. “We’re kind of hoping things go our way for one more series, for four more games.”

The Kelly Cup Finals start Wednesday night and the best-of-seven series will be played against the Dayton (Ohio) Bombers or the Florida Everblades. Dayton leads the American Conference series 3-2 and could clinch tonight in Estero, Fla. A Game 7 would be played Friday night in Florida.

“We’re in the process of getting some DVDs,” Laxdal said. “And we’ll be pre-scouting both teams.”

The Steelheads have not announced ticket plans for the Kelly Cup Finals.

In the meantime, here’s a look at Idaho’s possible matchups:

WHY IDAHO WOULDN’T WANT TO FACE FLORIDA

Florida — which lost to Idaho in the 2004 Kelly Cup Finals — had the best regular-season record in the American Conference (44-22-4-2) this season, and the Everblades’ 94 points trailed only Alaska and Las Vegas.

Florida is a playoff-tested team, having gone to the postseason six straight years under coach Gerry Fleming.

Everblades center Vince Bellissimo is tied for the league lead in playoff points. Only Idaho forward Lance Galbraith and Alaska’s Julian Talbot equal his 20 points.

Florida is tough on the penalty kill (92.9 percent efficiency), and is the top team in the ECHL.

The Steelheads’ road games against Florida would likely be played in front of large crowds: The Everblades averaged 6,248 fans in the regular season, second only to Stockton.

“They have good, solid depth,” Laxdal said. “And they seem to win every year.”

Also, Florida would have home-ice advantage in a best-of-seven series against Idaho.

WHY IDAHO WOULD WANT TO FACE FLORIDA

Hey, the Steelheads beat them in 2004, why not go for two?

Even though each team would be returning just three players to the rematch, Idaho might have the psychological advantage.

It’s hard to find too many negatives in Florida, but the Everblades haven’t been overly impressive on the road this postseason, going 4-3.

After a rough-and-tumble series versus Alaska, Idaho could expect a more penalty-free series against Florida. Alaska had three of the top four most-penalized players in the postseason. Florida doesn’t even have one player who ranks in the top 20 in penalty minutes.

Final thought: The surfing opportunities are more plentiful in Florida than they are in Ohio.

WHY IDAHO WOULDN’T WANT TO FACE DAYTON

This one is easy: Adam Berkhoel. Treasure Valley hockey fans saw how effective the Bombers’ goaltender could be when he was named the ECHL All-Star Game MVP on Jan. 17 at Qwest Arena.

Berkhoel finished the regular season with the third-best save percentage (.910) in the ECHL, behind two goalies the Steelheads have already eliminated in the playoffs: Las Vegas’ Mike McKenna (9.27) and Alaska’s Derek Gustafson (.918).

Berkhoel and a solid defense gave up the fewest goals (191) of any American Conference team in the regular season.

Offensively, Dayton, which won the North with a record of 37-26-2-7, had one of the top scorers in the regular season in center Yannick Tifu. Tifu finished with the third-most points (89) in the ECHL, two points ahead of Idaho’s top scorer, Marty Flichel.

In the playoffs, Tifu has continued to be productive with 14 points, but teammate Brent Walton has even bettered Tifu’s efforts with 16 points.

WHY IDAHO WOULD WANT TO FACE DAYTON

For starters, Idaho would have home-ice advantage in a series against Dayton. And even though they won the North Division, Dayton had the worst regular-season record of the teams still alive in the postseason.

Dayton’s special teams don’t appear to be as intimidating as Florida’s. While Florida ranks No. 1 in the playoffs on the penalty kill, Dayton ranks No. 8 (83.0). On the power play, Florida ranks No. 5 (21.4 percent) and Dayton follows at No. 9 (14.3 percent).

If the Steelheads play Dayton and take them to overtime, Idaho would appear to have a distinct advantage. The Steelheads went 11-2-4 in OT in the regular season, while the Bombers came into the playoffs with an overtime record of 5-2-7, which ranked them as the fourth-worst team in the league in overtime.

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In the end, Laxdal said what really matters is how the Steelheads play, regardless of whether its against Florida or Dayton.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” he said. “Two teams have got to go play the game, and you’ve got to adapt to what they do.”