Idaho suffered through low points earlier this season, and hit rock bottom Dec. 2.
That night, the Steelheads lost to the Florida Everblades 4-1 at CenturyLink Arena. It was a sixth straight home loss — Idaho hadn’t won a home contest since the opener Oct. 16.
The team had just returned from a 19-day road swing and won only two of its previous 13 hockey games. First-year coach Neil Graham kept preaching his system, and players continued to grind.
Last Friday night, that rock-bottom feeling was replaced by euphoria as Idaho leapfrogged Utah and took over first place in the West Division of the ECHL.
“It’s been cool for everybody,” Graham said.
Idaho and Utah are tied for first this week, and the early struggles seem to be a distant memory, except Graham and his players haven’t forgotten.
“It’s funny, because as tough as it was — and it was tough on me and it was tough on the players — if we didn’t go through that we might not be as driven, as unselfish as we are now,” Graham said. “We’re winning now, and it’s fun and guys don’t want to go back to (losing).”
What fueled the turnaround?
A number of factors.
The Steelheads acquired impact players Kyle Jean (forward) and Zach Yuen (defenseman). First-year goaltender Philippe Desrosiers got hot and posted a 5-0-1 record before getting called up to the American Hockey League. The Texas Stars, Idaho’s AHL affiliate, sent Jack Campbell to replace Desrosiers.
Campbell has posted a 13-4-0 record and was named the ECHL goaltender of the month for January. On Tuesday, he was named the ECHL goaltender of the week for the second time this season.
“But it’s also a lot of little things,” Graham said. “Our faceoff percentage is up. Special teams, both (power play) and (penalty kill), are up. Blocked shots, which will never show up on a score sheet, have become one of our strengths.”
Captain Carson McMillan said the turnaround is about hard work and being rewarded.
“It’s almost like nothing has really changed,” McMillan said. “We never stopped working, even when we were losing. We’re still working our butts off. … We got some pieces that have helped us and made us, maybe, 10 percent better. And maybe that’s all we needed to get out of that slump.”
Campbell was in a personal slump before being sent to Idaho. The Dallas Stars’ first-round NHL Draft pick in 2010 was 3-6-3 with Texas. His resurgence has paralleled the Steelheads’ upward trend.
“I just struggled to find my game (in Texas),” Campbell said. “But sure enough, I get sent down here and the team’s been great and I’ve really enjoyed it. The confidence I have right now I probably haven’t had since my draft year. … So, it’s been great to be here long enough to establish that confidence and get on a roll and be part of a really close-knit team.”
Campbell said he’s been able to watch his teammates, particularly defensemen, establish a chemistry on the ice since joining the Steelheads.
“It’s incredible the amount of blocks we have,” he said. “It’s amazing when we’re up by a couple of goals with 30 seconds left and guys are still diving in front of shots and blocking them.”
McMillan was named captain, in part, because he is the most experienced member of the roster, with game experience in three NHL seasons. He leaned on that experience early in the season, when he told his younger teammates to keep battling.
“My second year of pro, our team went to the finals in the (AHL),” McMillan said. “It was the same thing there. We were struggling, but we knew we had a good team. … It just took a little time to find our groove.”
Now the Steelheads appear to have found theirs.
“Teams go through ups and downs,” McMillan said. “I guess it’s good that we were struggling early enough that we knew we had time to turn it around. … We just had to find our way.”
Steelheads home Wednesday
- Who: vs. Rapid City Rush
- When: 7:10 p.m.
- Where: CenturyLink Arena
- Radio/TV: 1350 AM/Cable One channel 72
- Tickets: CenturyLink box office or idahosteelheads.com