Insiders Preview National Conference Finals Matchup - Idaho Central Arena
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Insiders Preview National Conference Finals Matchup

Doug Plagens, voice of the Idaho Steelheads and Mike Benton, voice of the Stockton Thunder, preview the upcoming National Conference Finals matchup.


The Idaho Steelheads are coming off a second-round sweep of the Utah Grizzlies, and now are staring at the “rolling” Stockton Thunder; a squad that is much different- and much improved- compared to the Thunder team the Steelheads handled to a 10-2-0 tune during the regular season. Keep in mind that the final of the 12 regular season meetings between Idaho and Stockton took place on January 2; nearly four months ago. We all know that in the ECHL, a lot can change in four days, much less four months.

Needless to say, however, Idaho proved worthy of the top-seed in the National Conference with a convincing four-game sweep of Utah. The Grizzlies, like Stockton, possess a good deal of capable scorers on offense, but the Thunder forwards are faster, and may play with a bit more of an edge than the Grizzlies’ offense. As was the case for Idaho against Utah, there will be the same emphasis on keeping the Stockton’s shots to the outside, and minimizing the traffic in front of Richard Bachman. With power forwards like Jason Pitton and Igor Gongalsky in front of the net, and shifty forwards like James Bates distributing the puck, the Idaho defensemen cannot afford any lapses around the goal.

If the Steelheads are going to key on a single Thunder player, that, in my mind, has to be Chris D’Alvise. The All-Star forward had seven points against Idaho during the regular season, which was good for the team-lead as far as players actively on the Thunder are concerned. Furthermore, as I mentioned, a lot can change in half-a-season, and over that time, D’Alvise has become even more comfortable with the ECHL game. The rookie forward is always one of the fastest players on the ice, and will drive the puck to the net. He’s dangerous from everywhere, and should expect to face some of Idaho’s top defenders each night.

The Stockton Thunder will be well-aware of Mark Derlago, Evan Barlow, and John Swanson each time they’re on the ice; after all, they had long looks at the trio during the regular season. But perhaps the hottest Steelheads forward, and the man who will have to continue his solid production in the National Conference Final is Mark McCutcheon. Stockton saw McCutcheon just three times during the regular season, as he was on an AHL call-up during the rest of the season series. McCutcheon can pass and score; he can rush the puck, and he can provide traffic and gather rebounds. He’s a contributor in all situations, as he gathered points at five-on-five, on the power play, and on the penalty kill against Utah. His three even strength goals in the four-game series with Utah lead the Steelheads, as do his seven points. If Idaho is going to win the series, they need to expect the same production from McCutcheon.


For the Thunder to get to the threshold of a Kelly Cup title, they must get around Idaho’s steady neutral zone strategy and get to Richard Bachman, who has now settled in as one of the hottest goaltending prospects in minor league hockey. Idaho led the league in fewest goals allowed (2.6) and fewest shots allowed (25.2), while Bachman took the league’s goals-against-average crown (2.28).

There’s a compliment of Idaho forwards for the Thunder to key on, and the first few who come to mind are budding star Evan Barlow, AHL-seasoned vet Mark McCutcheon, the championship experience of Marty Flichel and the explosive Mark Derlago.

But in the playoffs, you’re often as good as your goaltending, and Bachman is the key to Idaho’s success. He was in net for all four games of the Steelheads sweep of Utah and allowed just seven goals in that process. He plays a good, positional sound game and he’ll need to be keen on traffic and rebounds to have that same measure of success in the Conference Finals.

Likewise, the Thunder have too many offensively sound and physically fearless players to key on in this series. Instead of keying on just one player, the trend in their playoff success is dictated by their defensive corps that bottled up a couple of former longtime NHL forwards in the first two series.

The Thunder defensive pack, who employed sound positional strategy and a punishing, physical presence against the boards in the first two rounds, must be sharp again on Idaho’s forwards, who buried 21 goals in the four games against Utah.