By Brian Murphy
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Derek Laxdal gambled with the Idaho Steelheads’ playoff roster. The Steelheads’ second-year coach gambled by brushing aside immediate concerns for a future payoff. He gambled that, in order to ultimately win a championship, he needed to risk first-round failure.
So Laxdal put Greg Rallo (pictured) and Frances Wathier — both playing for the Steelheads’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Iowa Stars — on his 23-man playoff roster, not knowing when either player would be available to the Steelheads. That meant keeping forwards Jeremy Yablonski and Colin Shields out of the postseason.
“You kind of say what’s more important: a toughness factor or what do you need to win a championship?” Laxdal said.
He opted for the latter, even if that meant playing Stockton in the first round and Las Vegas in the second without either.
Right now — with Idaho one win away from the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals entering Tuesday’s Game 5 against Alaska at Qwest Arena — Laxdal and the Steelheads are being rewarded handsomely for thinking big.
Rallo, who left Idaho for Iowa after 37 games, arrived in the middle of the Steelheads’ second playoff series. He delivered the series-clinching goal against Las Vegas.
Rallo became available when the Dallas Stars — the parent club for Iowa and Idaho — lost in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Dallas then shipped several players to Iowa, bumping Rallo off the playoff roster after two games. He caught a flight from Omaha, Neb., where Iowa was playing in the first round, to Las Vegas.
“It was nerve-wracking a little bit. I knew numbers were tight up there (in Iowa) and knew if an early elimination would have occurred (for Idaho) that I might not even have gotten to play another game this season,” said Rallo, an ECHL All-Star who has three points in eight playoff games with the Steelheads.
Wathier arrived Sunday, less than 24 hours after Iowa was eliminated in the second round of the AHL playoffs.
Wathier could have waited a day or two before jumping back into the fray, giving his body time to rest after two playoff series. That was the original plan.
But Wathier was having none of it. So he boarded a 9:45 a.m. flight Sunday headed for Boise from Chicago — where Iowa had been eliminated in Game 6 late Saturday night.
“It’s still my team,” said Wathier, who played 17 games with the Steelheads and was named to the ECHL All-Star Game before being called up to Iowa.
The rugged forward had an assist in the Steelheads’ 7-2 victory against Alaska on Sunday night.
“After the (Stars’) loss I was thinking about it. ‘I don’t know. They’re pretty far in the playoffs, I don’t want to change their line-up,’ ” Wathier said. “I’m glad that they gave me the call. I’ll do anything I can to help win the Cup.”
The experience at a higher level of minor-league hockey — the Steelheads’ ECHL is consider AA; Iowa and the AHL is AAA — helps both player and the team he is returning to.
“We’re getting a better player back than when we sent them,” Laxdal said.
Laxdal isn’t alone in taking chances with his playoff roster. It’s a time-honored tradition in minor-league hockey.
In 2004, the Steelheads added five players from Utah during the first round, including goalie Dan Ellis and forward Zenon Konopka. They went onto win the Kelly Cup.
Las Vegas rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit last season against the Steelheads thanks to an infusion of players from their AHL affiliate. Alaska, which won the Kelly Cup last year, has benefited from players coming down also.
“You take the risk and everyone does it,” Laxdal said. “It’s a real gamble and it can be the difference between winning and losing, between having a long playoff or a short playoff.”
With the Kelly Cup so close and Rallo and Wathier comfortably back in the fold, Laxdal’s risk looks like a very good bet.