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Idaho Steelheads started season with one win in five games, then something clicked

Rookie forward Will Merchant has scored five goals for the Steelheads this season, all on the power play.
Rookie forward Will Merchant has scored five goals for the Steelheads this season, all on the power play. Provided by the Idaho Steelheads

When the Steelheads skated off the ice after a 4-1 win in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, they did so with smiles on their faces.

Idaho went 1-for-2 on the power play as it positioned itself as the top power-play team in the league, with a 26.7 percent success rate.

It’s a statistic that has lifted the Steelheads to victories.

“The big thing is we’ve gotten some timely power-play goals when we needed them to come through late in a game or in a tied hockey game,” second-year coach Neil Graham said. “It’s been good, and I’ve been happy with our penalty killers, as well. … When they’re both rolling it can help you win.”

That’s something Idaho has been doing a lot of recently. After starting the season 1-3-1, Idaho is 6-1-1 in its past eight games, five of which were road contests.

“We’ve been grabbing points the past couple of weeks, and we have to keep that going,” rookie forward Will Merchant said.

One way to do that is to stay hot on the power play, where a team has a man advantage on the ice because of a penalty to the opposing team. And nobody has been hotter than Merchant: He leads the ECHL with five power-play goals. In fact, all of the Maine product’s goals have come when Idaho has a man advantage.

“Will Merchant is a smart hockey player, and it’s really no coincidence that his five goals have come on the power play, because he finds that good area on the ice,” Graham said. “Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer have been the other forwards on that unit, and they’re two skilled hockey players who are primarily playmakers.”

Graham said there’s one other element that Merchant brings to the ice.

“When he shoots the puck, he shoots the puck hard,” he said.

Graham said it’s just a matter of time before Merchant gets some even-strength goals. In the meantime, Merchant refuses to overanalyze.

“I haven’t really thought about it too much, but it is a little weird,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a complete player.”

Merchant isn’t the only rookie doing his part to energize the power play. His roommate and fellow rookie, defenseman Brandon Anselmini, is tied for second in the ECHL with six power-play assists.

Graham is pleased to have two young players making such a huge impact on special teams early in their pro careers.

“Those guys have been terrific. Both Anselmini and Merchant have been great,” he said. “Brandon Anselmini is a very dynamic skater. … He’s not afraid to shoot, and when he does shoot he shoots it very accurately.”

Anselmini, who played four seasons at Ferris State, is glad he’s been getting his power-play chances as a rookie. But he’s not out of his element on special teams.

“The power play has been one of my biggest assets growing up,” said Anselmini, who is on an AHL contract with Texas. “I like to move the puck quickly and use my speed. … That’s what I do.”

NOTES: Idaho begins a three-game home series vs. Alaska on Wednesday. … Idaho has been idle since Saturday. Since then, Manchester has edged Idaho as the league’s No. 1 power play. The Monarchs have a 26.8 percent success rate, and Idaho is enjoying a 26.7 percent success rate.

Steelheads home for five games

▪ Who: Allen (8-9-0) at Idaho (9-5-2)

▪ When: 7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

▪ Where: CenturyLink Arena, Downtown Boise

▪ Radio/TV: KTIK 1350 AM/Cable One channel 72

▪ Next week: Three home games against Alaska on Wednesday, Dec. 2-3

▪ Tickets: Available at the CenturyLink box office, by calling 331-8497 or visiting IdahoSteelheads.com

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