The Idaho Steelheads' top line went missing Monday night — and at precisely the wrong time.
Instead of finishing off the Las Vegas Wranglers in their West Division semifinal series in Game 5, the Steelheads now face an extremely quick turnaround, a morning flight to Las Vegas and Game 6 tonight.
That kind of whirlwind adventure is great for lovebirds headed for a small chapel and an Elvis impersonator. For a weary hockey team, it's less than ideal.
The Steelheads, which lead the best-of-7 series 3-2, must hope their top line — the dominant force in the series through four games — rediscovers its scoring touch en route to Sin City.
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The Steelheads' top line — Garett Bembridge, David Bararuk and Dan Hacker — entered Game 5 with eight goals and 22 points between them. Bembridge and Bararuk, with eight points apiece, paced the ECHL in playoff scoring entering Monday night's games.
But Las Vegas finally found a way to shut out the trio Monday night.
Despite sometime solid play, particularly in the first period, the potent line couldn't get a puck past Wrangler goalie Marc Magliarditi. The line drew three first-period penalties, but failed to score. In the last two periods, they were often just a step off or out of sync. Bembridge had a game-high seven shots on goal, but was stoned at every try.
It's a problem the Steelheads haven't faced often. And one they must quickly rectify.
With regular-season leading scorer D'Arcy McConvey (86 points) playing for Iowa of the American Hockey League and unlikely to return, the Steelheads rely heavily on Bembridge, Bararuk and Hacker to score. Though second-liners Greg Rallo and Marty Flichel have certainly played a big offensive role in the series, it's the first line that can and must lead the way.
Through four games, that's exactly what the trio did. The players combined for eight of Idaho's 13 goals and 22 of its 37 points.
Monday's line: zero goals, zero points.
If the Steelheads get past Las Vegas, the offensive problem could become even more acute.
Bembridge, the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season (75 points) despite playing in just 52 games and the team's strongest offensive player in the series, could be headed back to the AHL after this round.
Bembridge is on loan from Portland (Maine) of the AHL, which is the highest minor-league system and considered Class AAA. The ECHL is a Class AA league.
As part of his contract with Portland, Bembridge was loaned to the Steelheads for the first round of the playoffs. But Bembridge is on Portland's playoff roster and its postseason begins Thursday, meaning there's no certainty about which jersey he'll be wearing then.
"You want to stay down here and help these guys in the playoffs, but also career-wise (it would be good) to be up there playing in the playoffs. It's one league higher," said Bembridge, who played 19 regular-season games with Portland. "That's the business."
The Steelheads have to constantly adjust to a changing lineup, particularly painful during the playoffs when consistency and continuity are especially prized. Despite the headaches, the call-ups are considered positive because of their value in recruiting players. A team that can consistently promote its players stands a good chance of landing talented players looking for an opportunity to move up the hockey ladder.
But that doesn't help the Steelheads right now. And it's equally hard on Bembridge.
Having played much of the season in Boise and having an attachment to the Steelheads, it's tough to get pried away at the most critical time of the year.
"If we just keep winning down here, that's something that I'd love to do for the guys and for the city," Bembridge said. "I'd be more than willing to stay here and win the championship."
That might not be possible. Portland, a championship contender in the AHL, might need his services.
And if Bembridge and his linemates can't figure out a way to get back in the scoring column, it won't matter much anyway.