Idaho went 7-1-0 against the Colorado Eagles during the regular season. Based on that, sounds like the Steelheads are heavy favorites in their first-round series in the ECHL's Western Conference playoffs.
The Steelheads will have none of that.
"The playoffs are a totally different game," said Matt Case, Idaho's defensive stalwart who finished with the top plus/minus rating in the ECHL (plus-32). "It doesn't matter what happened in the regular season."
Six of the teams' meetings came in the first 21 games of the season, when Idaho was loaded with talent that has since moved on to the next level (American Hockey League).
When Idaho and Colorado met in early March, the teams split a two-game series.
"You look back at the last series, and you see that they're a very talented, offensive-minded hockey team," Idaho coach Brad Ralph said. "They've made some good acquisitions in the last month to improve their roster."
Steelheads captain Ben Ondrus said these are two different teams than the ones who squared off early in the season. "They've had a lot of changes, and we've had a lot of changes," he said.
After a season of roster turmoil, Idaho has regrouped with a new set of players. The team finished 10-5 in its final 15 games.
"Ready or not, it's here," Ondrus said. "I'm just excited to get this thing started."
Ralph submitted his playoff roster to the ECHL on Tuesday, and it included 11 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders.
That leaves three spots open, allowing Ralph to add any of the nine players who are eligible to return from the AHL should they become available. In order to leave those spots open, however, Ralph had to waive defenseman Ken Trentowski and forward Mike Towns.
"Those decisions don't come easy," Ralph said. "It's very difficult to leave them off the roster. I believe we made the right decisions, but time will tell."
BRING ON THE OFFENSE
Idaho and Colorado had two of the most productive offenses in the league this season. The Steelheads ranked No. 1 in goals scored and the Eagles had the top power play.
Colorado plays a wide-open style that will force Idaho's defense to be disciplined.
"They've got a lot of skill up front and they move the puck really well," Case said. "(Colorado's offense) creates confusion, so you've got to use a lot of communication and sort things out. You want to close on them fast and make sure they're not allowed to skate around looking for somebody to pass to."
IDAHO PLAYERS TO WATCH
Æ Austin Smith, forward: A natural scorer, Smith led the team in goals (27) and points (50) despite playing 38 games with Idaho.
Æ Rylan Galiardi, forward: The gritty Galiardi was acquired in February from the San Francisco Bulls. He led the ECHL with a plus-12 rating in March.
Æ Adrian Foster, forward: Idaho's wild card. Foster has been sidelined for most of the past three months with a nagging injury. The former first-round NHL draft pick returned for a tune-up game Friday, and tallied two goals and an assist in Idaho's 5-0 win at San Francisco.
COLORADO PLAYERS TO WATCH
Æ Michael Forney, forward: One of three forwards named to the All-ECHL first team. He was second in the league in points (79) and fourth in goals (35).
Æ Chad Costello, forward: Costello was the most productive Colorado player against Idaho this season, with two goals and seven assists in six games.
Æ Trent Daavettila, forward: Daavettila tallied 67 points (19 goals, 48 assists). His assists ranked seventh in the ECHL.
WHO'S IN NET?
Ralph hadn't told his two goaltenders who would start Game 1 as of Tuesday afternoon, preferring to wait until Wednesday to make his decision official. He has a mixture of proven experience (Tyler Beskorowany) and youth (Josh Robinson, the team MVP) to choose from. Robinson went 5-0-0 against Colorado, while Beskorowany went 2-1-0.
Colorado will counter with Adam Brown and Kyle Jones. Brown went 1-2 against Idaho, while Jones lost both of his games versus the Steelheads.