With the hockey season winding down, the Idaho Steelheads find themselves in a familiar spot — playoff-bound and ready to compete for a Kelly Cup championship.
In 20 years of professional hockey, the Steelheads have never missed the postseason. It’s a sustained run of success that has few rivals in professional sports, and it became official Wednesday night with a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Eagles in CenturyLink Arena. The same teams play Friday and Saturday nights as Idaho’s regular season home schedule comes to an end.
“It feels good to get in with a win,” said captain Jefferson Dahl, who assisted on Will Merchant’s game-winning goal Wednesday. “It’s a tribute to the guys in the room, and it’s one more step in this long journey.”
Here’s a look at the historical significance of Idaho’s two-decade run — and at what comes next.
20 AND COUNTING
Idaho’s 20-year run of playoff competition is one of the longest active streaks in pro sports. In fact, no team in North American professional hockey (NHL, AHL or ECHL) can match the Steelheads’ postseason streak.
“Twenty years, it’s pretty special,” Steelheads President Eric Trapp said. “I’d like to think we have a winning culture here. We try to bring in coaches who are good people with strong leadership skills, and the coaches try to bring in the same kind of players. I think those types of people are winners.”
The Steelheads clinched one day after the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from postseason play, snapping a 25-year run that was the longest in the major leagues. Currently, the longest active streaks belong to the NBA’s Spurs (20 years), NHL’s Penguins (11 years), NFL’s Patriots (8) and MLB’s Dodgers (4).
“I think it speaks volumes of the consistency this team operates with, from top to bottom,” Idaho coach Neil Graham said. “We pride ourselves in doing things the right way, and I feel extremely proud and fortunate to be a part of this organization.”
The ECHL playoffs begin April 12. The Steelheads must win four best-of-seven series to capture the Kelly Cup, starting with two rounds against divisional opponents.
Idaho is virtually locked into the Mountain Division’s No. 3 seed. The Steelheads will play the No. 2 seed — Colorado or Allen — in the first round. Colorado has a one-point lead at the top.
Idaho went 3-1 versus Allen this season, but the clubs haven’t met since Dec. 23. Allen is the two-time defending Kelly Cup champion, and the Americans eliminated Idaho in a grueling, seven-game series in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
If Colorado falls to the No. 2 spot, the Steelheads would draw the Eagles. Idaho is 5-3-1 versus Colorado to date.
“We’re preparing for both teams,” Graham said. “I don’t think anyone in the Mountain Division can afford to take their opponent lightly, no matter the matchup.”
Idaho has five games left in the regular season — home contests Friday and Saturday versus Colorado and a three-game road trip next week to Alaska.
Sadly, it could be the last meeting between the Steelheads and longtime rival Aces. Alaska has announced it will suspend operations at the end of this season, though the Aces are still in the hunt for the Mountain Division’s final playoff spot.
“These games are playoff-like,” Dahl said. “Colorado is one of the top teams in the league, and Alaska is fighting for their playoff lives, so it’s good for us to sharpen our saw and get our game in order.”