By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho — So it’s come to this in the Idaho Steelheads’ surprising run in the ECHL playoffs: One more win and they’ll be playing in the Kelly Cup finals.
The Steelheads erupted for three second-period goals on the way to defeating the Alaska Aces 7-2 in Game 4 of the National Conference finals. With the win, Idaho took a 3-1 lead in the series and is on the brink of playing for the Kelly Cup for the first time since winning it in 2004.
The teams return to Qwest Arena for Game 5 at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday, when Idaho will try to eliminate the defending Kelly Cup champions.
The Steelheads clinched the first two series of the playoffs on their home ice, so they’ll be going for three in a row Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be one of those games where a team is facing elimination and we’re trying to close them out,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said. “It’s going to be exciting and it’s going to be a game our fans don’t want to miss.”
Idaho entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the conference and knocked off Stockton (No. 5) and Las Vegas (No. 1) before its series against Alaska (No. 2).
If Games 6 and 7 are necessary, they would be played at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
Sunday’s game featured two players Idaho couldn’t count on being on the ice the day before: Steelheads captain Marty Flichel (pictured) and forward Frances Wathier.
Flichel, who scored two goals, was questionable after going knee-to-knee with Alaska’s Joe Talbot in Game 3 on Friday.
“In the regular season, I probably wouldn’t be out there,” Flichel said. “Hopefully, I can keep trucking along.”
Wathier made an impact in his first game back with Idaho since December. He played 17 games with the Steelheads before being promoted to the Iowa Stars, the Steelheads’ AHL affiliate. Iowa’s playoff run ended Saturday, and Wathier returned to Idaho.
He let the fans know he was back by landing a couple of big hits in the first period and notching an assist on what proved to be the game-winning goal.
“If I can help a team that was already playing really well, I’d be really happy,” Wathier said. “I just want to help my team. … Because it is my team. I spent some time here and I enjoy the city, I enjoy the fans.”
Flichel’s first goal came on a 5-on-3 power play about 15 minutes into the first period. Less than 3 minutes later, rookie defenseman Travis Wight put Idaho up 2-0.
Then Idaho erupted for its three goals. Idaho forward John Lammers (one goal, three assists) began the scoring frenzy when he corralled the puck in front of the net, and made a nice move to beat Alaska goalie Derek Gustafson glove side to make it 3-2. Wathier assisted.
Less then 3 minutes later Idaho had a 4-2 lead after Greg Rallo sent a shot from the top of the right circle that beat Gustafson.
Flichel then effectively put the game out of reach with his second goal of the game.
Up 5-2, the smart money was on Idaho to close out the game. The Steelheads were 34-1-1 overall and 6-0 in the playoffs after leading through two periods.
Flichel said his team knows its work isn’t done yet.
“The series is far from over,” he said. “They’re the Kelly Cup champion, so they know how to win.”