Helminen, Other Late Additions Help Idaho’s Playoff Push

By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman

For the first time since 2002, Cal Ingraham’s name is being tossed around the Idaho Steelheads locker room.

No, the popular former player hasn’t decided to come out of retirement. Instead, a few veterans are having fun with defenseman Lars Helminen.

That’s because Helminen’s stature, at 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, reminds them of the 5-5 Ingraham, who is the only Steelhead to have his jersey retired. But it’s not just his size that brings on the comparison, veteran Scott Burt said. “The face, the way they walk, the way they handle themselves. It’s pretty funny, but the first thing we all said was, ‘Hey, we have a new Cal here,’ ” Burt said.

Helminen is one of four late-season newcomers to the Steelheads, who begin the ECHL National Conference finals against the Alaska Aces at 9:15 p.m. Monday in Anchorage.

Helminen, forward John Lammers, forward B.J. Crombeen and center Jay Beagle have played key roles in the club’s recent success, including two winning playoff series.

Helminen said he doesn’t mind playing along with the Ingraham comparisons.

“I get that a lot,” he said. “I still haven’t met the man, but I see his jersey up in the rafters, so I can’t say that’s a bad thing.”

Helminen has a long way to go to duplicate the numbers of Ingraham, a forward who scored 50 goals in three consecutive seasons. But the young defenseman, who joined the Steelheads with three games remaining in the regular season, has come up big for Idaho since donning a Steelheads uniform.

With 12 points in 12 playoff games, he has shown that he is an offensive defenseman who can make big plays.

Lars Helminen is a dynamic defenseman who skates well, sees the ice well and moves the puck well,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said.

Helminen played four years at Michigan Tech (three of those with Steelhead Taggart Desmet) before being signed by the Iowa Stars, the Steelheads’ AHL affiliate. After practicing in Iowa for a few weeks, he was assigned to Idaho to get some professional game experience.

Laxdal said that Helminen’s size isn’t a factor on the ice.

“Size is not really an issue in the game anymore because the clutching and grabbing and all that is kind of out of the game,” Laxdal said. “He’s not overly physical, but he has a big heart.”

A big heart, and maybe a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

“Ever since I was young, everybody has said, ‘You won’t go anywhere because you’re so small,’ ” Helminen said. “But you’ve just got to prove people wrong and get the job done. Being a smaller guy, it’s just that much more you have to prove. But that’s a role I like to accept. I like the challenge.”

Lammers, a 5-11, 185-pound forward, joined the team with nine regular-season games remaining.

His production has gone up in the postseason. He notched four points in the final nine regular-season games, but has 10 points in 12 playoff games.

Lammers began the season with Iowa, but was only playing in spots with the Stars. He’s getting a lot more ice time with the Steelheads.

“When I came down here I was actually excited that I was going to be able to play a little more and be a part of the team,” he said.

Lammers was involved in arguably the Steelheads’ most important goal since they won the Kelly Cup in 2004. In Game 6 of last week’s series against Las Vegas, his shot on goal was rejected by goalie Kevin Nastiuk, but Greg Rallo took the rebound and scored the game- and series-winner with 1 minute, 3 seconds remaining. It was Rallo’s first game at Qwest Arena since he was called up to Iowa about halfway through the season.

Lammers said he wouldn’t mind being in a few more big plays while with Idaho.

“It’s been fun to be on a little run here, and hopefully it’s going to keep going,” he said. If so, Crombeen, a 6-2, 212-pounder, will be along for the ride. Crombeen came to Idaho after playing professionally in Finland this season, and scored 11 points in the final 13 games of the regular season with Idaho.

In the playoffs, he has five points in 12 games. But Crombeen admits that his game isn’t all about point production.

“I try to chip in the odd goal, but more or less just finish all my checks, go to the net hard and play a simple game,” Crombeen said.

Laxdal said that’s just what the Steelheads need.

“What (Crombeen) brings is some grit,” he said. “And we didn’t have a lot of that up front.”