By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – The Idaho Steelheads are in a position that few people could have imagined when the ECHL playoffs started.
The Steelheads, seeded fourth in the National Conference finals, knocked off fifth-seeded Stockton in a first-round series and plowed through top-seeded Las Vegas in the second-round.
Having reached the National Conference finals, the Steelheads wrote another chapter in their Cinderella postseason by defeating No. 2 Alaska in Anchorage in the first two games of the series. Now Idaho finds itself just two wins away from the Kelly Cup finals as it plays Game 3 against Alaska on Friday at Qwest Arena.
“It’s an exciting time,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said. “This is where you want to be in April or May. You want to be playing in the playoffs.”
But why is Idaho making this improbable run? The answer might be found in the way Idaho scored its three goals in a 3-2 overtime win over Alaska in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
• The first goal was scored by rookie defenseman Lars Helminen, who wouldn’t be with Idaho if not for its affiliation with the American Hockey League’s Iowa Stars.
• The second goal was scored by Scott Burt, a veteran who is providing valuable leadership.
• The game-winner was scored by rookie forward Taggart Desmet, who is the fruit of Laxdal’s recruiting efforts in his second year as the Steelheads’ coach.
If an ECHL team were putting together a blueprint for playoff success, it would need look no further than those three elements. A team needs to have veteran leadership, solid recruits and help from its affiliates.
“Those are all necessary to make a run,” Helminen said. “Can’t have one and not the other.”
After four years at Michigan Tech, the Iowa Stars recruited Helminen. After spending a little over two weeks with the Stars, he was encouraged to come to Idaho to get playing experience.
Since then, he’s looked like a wily veteran. His 14 points in the playoffs have him tied for third among all players.
He’s not the only player who spent time with Iowa to come to Idaho and make a difference. Greg Rallo played the first half of the season with Idaho before being called up to Iowa.
After the Dallas Stars were eliminated in the NHL playoffs, a few players were sent to Iowa. That domino effect resulted in Rallo’s return to Idaho.
Idaho was glad to have him back in the series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Wranglers. He and John Lammers, another player who came from Iowa to late in the season, teamed up for the game-winner in a 1-0 win.
“He’s one of our No. 1 penalty killers,” Laxdal said. “He’s the kind of guy you put on the ice at the end of a period or the end of a game to protect a lead.”
And that can be every bit as important as his game-tying goal in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
“He’s a piece to the puzzle you need to have if you’re going to have a championship team,” Laxdal said. “He’s been there, and his leadership in the dressing room … is just another piece to that puzzle.”
Last season, Laxdal said Las Vegas’ depth in the playoffs was a big reason the Wranglers came back from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate Idaho. Laxdal then said his goal was to bring more depth into the playoffs.
Desmet is the perfect example of the depth of this year’s team. The rookie forward is one of several players who have sat out a few games in the playoffs as Laxdal tries to keep fresh legs in the lineup.
“I felt great (in Game 2) after a little bit of a rest there,” Desmet said. “My body healed up and my legs felt great and I was just excited to get out there and contribute.”
His goal obviously made a huge impact, as have several other players who Laxdal has recruited to Boise. Defenseman Blake Forsyth played under Laxdal with Wichita in the Central Hockey League, and he followed his coach to Idaho. Kory Scoran joined Idaho just before the playoffs last season, and the rookie was named most improved player by his teammates this year. Travis Wight was lured to Idaho after four years at the University of Maine and he was named the rookie of the year.
Another player that Laxdal maneuvered for is Derek Nesbitt, who played his first pro year with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators and then was named an all-star this season after Laxdal acquired him in a trade.
Nesbitt is just another piece of that puzzle that seems to be fitting together at the right time.
“You’ve got your young guys, your guys who are coming down from Iowa and you’ve got the veterans who have played in this league for many years,” Helminen said. “Once you get good chemistry and all the guys can work together, you can do big things.”
Even perhaps something as big as playing for the Kelly Cup.
Idaho is just two wins away.