By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – The Idaho Steelheads cleared out their lockers Monday, an annual rite that came all too soon for the players this season.
“Today is always the toughest day,” Idaho veteran Garett Bembridge said.
The Steelheads were swept out of the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs by the Victoria Salmon Kings, who defeated Idaho 4-0 in the opening round.
It was a startling turn of events for the Steelheads, who won a franchise-record 44 games during the regular season and had defeated the Salmon Kings in six of their seven meetings before the postseason.
Idaho’s early exit produced some soul searching.
“I read an article today about how they thought we were soft, and I can’t argue with that,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said. “I thought they played a grittier style than we played, and that might have been the difference, and that’s something we’ll have to address. I don’t mean gritty as in toughness, I mean gritty in mental toughness and doing the things you need to do to win.”
Steelheads veteran Darrell Hay said Victoria’s experience might have had something to do with that.
“If you look at their roster, they have two rookies and we have something like nine,” he said.
Rookies or veterans, Laxdal said he saw a difference in the two teams’ defenses.
“We have to improve on the areas we lacked this year,” he said. “I thought we lacked in the mobility of our defense. Victoria had a real mobile defense É and I think that’s an area that we have to improve upon. We really missed Matt Stephenson back there, a puck-rushing defenseman.”
Stephenson and Steve Gainey left the Steelheads to play in the AHL, and Laxdal said he wondered if Idaho’s postseason might have gone differently had they played for Idaho in the playoffs.
But that’s not the only question that will eat at Laxdal this offseason.
“What if we held on to that 1-0 lead in the first game, and we led the series 1-0?” he asked. “What if we held the 1-0 lead in Game 4? There are a lot of what-ifs, but the guys were well prepared and stayed within the system. But we just didn’t score enough goals.”
Even when they pelted Victoria goalie Todd Ford.
“Game 2 was a pivotal point in the series,” Laxdal said. “We were down 1-0 most of the game, and we threw 51 shots at them and we couldn’t score. I thought that was the biggest difference in the series. We win that one and it’s 1-1.”
But playoff hockey is unpredictable, Laxdal said.
“You saw a very atypical playoff series, but you know what, you’re seeing it in the NHL right now,” he said. “San Jose, the top team in the NHL, lost both games at home in their series.”
Looking back, one might wonder whether Idaho was overconfident, given its success against Victoria in the regular season and the fact that Steelheads goalie Matt Climie went 2-1 in the NHL before returning to Idaho for Game 1.
“We were confident,” captain Marty Flichel said. “I don’t know that we were overconfident. You like to be on a roll going into the playoffs, and we were, but we just didn’t get that one bounce. I don’t think we were overconfident.”
As for the future, the wounds from their early exit were still too raw for the players interviewed to look ahead.
One player who Steelheads fans won’t likely see again is Climie, who left Monday to serve as an emergency backup for Houston of the AHL. Climie is under contract with the Dallas Stars, and his time in the ECHL is probably behind him.
Laxdal said he would be performing exit interviews with the players Tuesday, and he wasn’t looking much beyond that.
“No excuses,” he said. “We lost, and power to Victoria. Now the yard work starts.”