2023 Utah Grizzlies vs Idaho Steelheads

Idaho Steelheads Look To Complete Comeback In 2023 Kelly Cup Playoffs

Idaho Steelheads Look To Complete Comeback In 2023 Kelly Cup Playoffs

With the season they had, it certainly wouldn’t have been unfair to think the Idaho Steelheads would breeze through the early rounds of the 2023 playoffs.

May 1, 2023 by Mike Ashmore
Idaho Steelheads Look To Complete Comeback In 2023 Kelly Cup Playoffs

Having set league records with 58 wins and 119 points en route to the Brabham Cup as the ECHL’s regular season champions, it certainly wouldn’t have been unfair to think the Idaho Steelheads would breeze through the early rounds of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

Not so fast.

After losing the first two contests in the best-of-seven Mountain Division semifinals to the Utah Grizzlies, as seen exclusively on FloHockey, the Steelheads rallied with three consecutive overtime wins on the road to get to within one game of advancing.

For a team that, from the outside looking in, hadn’t faced much adversity this season, it hasn’t been easy. But, Idaho bench boss Everett Sheen, recently named the league’s Coach of the Year, knew it wouldn’t be.

“I definitely don’t think our group thought we were going to blow through the playoffs by any means,” he told FloHockey via cell phone. “It’s a whole different ballgame, and credit to Utah, they came out ready to go. So did we, but they got the bounces those first two games and got a couple guys back from the American (Hockey) League, which always helps, as well.

“I thought the biggest thing was that we’d played them 18 times in the regular season, so we’re very familiar with each other. They made some adjustments, and we had to adjust to that.”

Down two games to none after 3-0 and 3-2 losses, respectively, there was no thought of hitting the mythical “panic button” for Sheen and his group. They actually ended up selecting a different one instead.

“We have a very tight-knit group, and I think it was a wake-up call for a few guys in terms of what playoff hockey actually takes and entails,” Sheen said. “But, instead of hitting the panic button, we actually hit the fun button. I thought our guys wanted it so bad that they were a little uptight in those first two games, so we just went back to having some fun in practice on one of the days (between games) and got our minds right.”

It got the series back in their favor eventually, too.

Three straight overtime wins over the course of four days at the Maverik Center in Utah has the Steelheads within a game of advancing, slowly but surely overcoming a stunning early deficit.

“That first game in Utah, it was huge to go in there and get that win,” Sheen said. “Even though it was in overtime, but especially for our power play to get the winner, it was a good boost of morale and was almost like a confidence thing for our guys. Even as a player, no matter how good of a team you are, you’ve got to get that first playoff win to really feel good about yourself, so I felt like that was a big step for our group.”

As was rallying from an early two-goal deficit in Friday’s Game 4, and then walking out of Utah the following night with another critical win to send the team back home with a chance to clinch the series.

Just as blowing through the first round wasn’t, that also is not guaranteed, not with how the Grizzlies have been playing and not given the familiarity between teams that now will face each other for the 24th time this year, including the playoffs.

“They’re doing a very good job of limiting our high-end, Grade-A chances,” Sheen said. “You really have to work for those, and I give them credit on that. They’re packing the house pretty good and making it tough to get shots through and tough to get those rebounds. Our guys have had to get a little bit creative in finding ways here, but we have in those last few games. They’re playing us hard.

“We’ve played them 23 times now, so there’s that extra level of not hatred, but borderline hatred between our guys and their guys, so that’s added a different dynamic, too.”

With Game 6 set for 7:10 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday night, Sheen knows to expect not only more of the same on that end, but also a big push from the Grizzlies in the opening few minutes, as they try to extend the series to the full seven games.

“We obviously all know that (push is) probably going to come, but our message, even in facing teams three times in a row quite a few times this season, is to not necessarily sit back and withstand it, but to come out swinging ourselves,” Sheen said. “The way to combat a team on its toes is to be on our toes, too, and really test their will and compete to see it through to the end.

“Our guys are pumped up, want to see this through and want to close it out (Monday). So, I imagine we’ll be ready to go, too.”