Local hockey fans’ final memory of the 2015-16 Idaho Steelheads campaign will be cheering loudly as the players — sticks raised high in the air — skated off the ice after a 7-1 playoff victory.
That Game 5 win gave Idaho a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference quarterfinals. But defending ECHL champion Allen rallied to win Games 6 and 7 in Texas, including a 3-2 overtime heartbreaker in Wednesday’s winner-take-all series finale.
When former Idaho forward Tristian King’s shot from the corner caromed off a skate and past goalie Philippe Desrosiers for the series-winning goal, it brought a bitter end to a promising season.
“It’s tough when guys bust their butts for seven games and it comes down to one bounce,” team captain Carson McMillan said. “We felt like we had the right team and the right staff to make a run. But the hockey gods have other ideas sometimes, especially in the playoffs.”
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Idaho owns the ECHL’s longest active playoff streak at 13 seasons. But the loss to Allen marks its second consecutive first-round exit, and the fifth time in six seasons the team has been eliminated in the first two rounds.
“We know there’s a standard of success here in Idaho,” said first-year head coach Neil Graham. “We fell one goal short in overtime of Game 7, and as much as that stings right now, we are going to learn from it and get better going forward.”
A rollercoaster playoff run — the series lead changed hands four times — was fitting for a team that battled through its share of adversity this season. The Steelheads overcame a slow start and vaulted to the top of the West Division standings with a scorching hot run, but a couple of losses in the season’s final week forced a tie with Colorado for the division title.
Idaho lost the tiebreaker, and with it home-ice advantage and a date with Utah — though that was exactly what the Steelheads got last spring, and the Grizzlies ousted favored Idaho in six games.
“Obviously, there are games throughout the season where you wish you could have earned more points,” Graham said. “But you’re torturing yourself if you look back on those.”
Perhaps more damaging were untimely injuries to forward Jefferson Dahl and defenseman Corbin Baldwin. Dahl, who tied for the team lead with 22 goals, missed the entire first-round series. Baldwin, a shutdown blue-liner who led the team in plus-minus, was injured in Game 1 and never returned.
“I thought guys really stepped up and gave it a heck of a ride without our first-line center and our top defenseman,” Graham said. “That’s part of playoff hockey. It’s something you have to overcome.”
McMillan and Joe Basaraba shared the team lead with seven playoff points, while defenseman Tommy Fallen chipped in six. And Desrosiers played some of his best hockey, posting a .932 save percentage while starting all seven games.
“I was proud of everyone,” McMillan said. “Guys were grinding. Guys were down on the ice, blocking shots and taking hits. I thought Desrosiers took his game to a new level and was outstanding.”
Young players such as Fallen and Kruise Reddick, in particular, stepped up in more prominent roles. Reddick scored two huge goals in the series, while Fallen was arguably the team’s best defender, using his skating ability to cover his own zone and create quality scoring chances on the counterattack.
“It was a fun series to be a part of,” Fallen said. “Playing in my first pro playoffs was definitely a great experience. It’s unfortunate that our season is over, but we had a really close team, so it will be fun to keep up with the guys and see where they go from here.”
The team returned to Boise on Thursday and held exit interviews Friday before parting ways for the offseason. Substantive roster changes are inevitable at the ECHL level, but Graham wants to bring several players back if he can. The signing period starts June 16, and the team can protect up to eight players by making qualified offers before June 30. That doesn’t include players currently on NHL or AHL contracts, such as Desrosiers (Dallas Stars), forwards Emil Molin (Dallas) and Taylor Peters (Dallas), and defensemen Zach Bell (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Zack Kamrass (Texas Stars).
“It’s too early to tell,” Graham said of who might return next season. “But certainly, I’m happy with the way our players grew as professionals, and how we grew as coaches. We took strides as an organization, and now we have to build on it.”
Graham, a former Idaho player and assistant coach, earned glowing reviews in his first year at the helm. He appears capable of leading the Steelheads back to Kelly Cup contention, especially if he can retain some of the leadership and skill from the current roster.
But for now, the postseason is marching on without Idaho. And for the team and its fans, Oct. 14 — when the Steelheads will begin their next championship quest in Utah — can’t come soon enough.