It happens frequently in sports: A team races out to a great regular-season record and clinches a playoff spot well before the postseason begins.
The Idaho Steelheads’ opponent this Friday and Saturday night followed that script. The Missouri Mavericks clinched the best overall record in the ECHL on March 23.
With home-ice advantage clinched throughout the playoffs, coach Richard Matvichuk had to make the decision whether to rest players or keep his foot on the gas until the end of the season.
Matvichuk chose to give his players a bit of a break. Whether that move pays off in the long run remains to be seen, but in the short term, the Mavericks enter Friday’s contest at CenturyLink Arena on a three-game losing streak.
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“We rested them early, but now it’s game on again,” Matvichuk said. “We’re in playoff mode now.”
The Steelheads, on the other hand, never had the luxury of resting any players. They are in a dogfight for the West Division title with two games remaining in the regular season.
“Yeah, no nights off,” Steelheads captain Carson McMillan said. “Everybody’s still battling. It’s been 70 games, and everybody is still working their butt off.”
First-year coach Neil Graham would obviously love to have the division already wrapped up, but there’s also a part of him his glad that his team will have to grind away until the final horn sounds Saturday night.
“We don’t have a group that can rely on skill every night and go out there and give half an effort and win,” Graham said. “We only win when we play our hardest and compete for 60 minutes. As cliché as that sounds, that really is our team.”
The good news is the Steelheads have already clinched a playoff spot. The drama coming into Friday’s game, however, revolves around their playoff position. Idaho can finish as high as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference or as low as the No. 6 seed.
“It’s nice that we’ve clinched that playoff spot,” McMillan said. “But we’ve got two important games this weekend.”
And while Idaho (37-23-10) still has the division title in its sights, it doesn’t control its own destiny. Colorado (40-26-4) has won eight of its past nine games — including four in a row against Idaho — to jump into a first-place tie with the Steelheads. If the two teams finish with the same number of points, Colorado will win the division based on the first tiebreaker (total number of regulation and overtime wins).
Idaho won’t be getting any gifts from Missouri (51-14-5). Matvichuk wants his team to play with a renewed sense of purpose after dropping four of its past six games since clinching the league’s best record.
“It’s hard, especially from a player’s standpoint, not to say, ‘This game doesn’t mean anything,’” Matvichuk said. “But now it’s go time.”
For his part, Graham is eager to see how Idaho measures up against the league’s best team. Friday will be the first meeting between the two teams.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way going into the playoffs,” Graham said. “I wouldn’t say we had it circled on the calendar, but we’re definitely excited to see them going into the playoffs.”
Veteran Andrew Carroll took a year off from hockey before deciding to return to play this season with the Steelheads. Seventy games later, he doesn’t regret his decision.
“We’re fighting for the top spot in the division,” Carroll said. “This is why I came back. … There’s no better time than right now, and we’re right there.”
Who: Missouri at Idaho
When: 7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: CenturyLink Arena
Radio/TV: 1350 AM/Cable One channel 72
Tickets: CenturyLink Arena box office or idahosteelheads.com
Up next: The Steelheads will begin the playoffs either April 15 or April 20, depending on where they are seeded.