By: Kitt Amundson
Bob Johnson said “It is a great day for hockey”, and while every day is no doubt a great day for hockey, there is no more exciting time in hockey than the playoffs. Just ask Colorado Eagles center, Casey Pierro Zabotel, “It is my favorite time of the season- it all comes down to this right now.” Head Coach Aaron Schneekloth agrees, “This is what you work for. This is when the fun begins. This is where the hard work, the times we played through a shortened bench, injuries, players being called up, this is what makes it worth it.”
So with Game One just around the corner, how do the Eagles stack up against their opponent, the Idaho Steelheads?
The Eagles finished second in the Mountain Division, third in the Western Conference. The Steelheads were third in the Division and fifth in the Conference and both fared very well both at home and on the road. The Eagles have had a strong penalty kill this season with an 83.4% success rate overall and 78.3% success against Idaho. Neither team has had more than a 25% success rate on the power play. One significant difference, however, is the number of penalty minutes per game each team has tallied. The Eagles have racked up 4.1 minutes more per game than the Steelheads. The leader in penalties for the Eagles in head-to-head competition is none other than one of the fan favorites, Darryl Bootland. “Playoff time is different. Every night you have to use your head. You play tough and hard and physical but don’t let yourself get caught in unnecessary situations. “
The teams are dead even with respect to goals scored against them during the regular season with 206 each. Eagles netminder, Kent Simpson faces the playoffs just as he would any other game. “For me, I approach the playoffs the same way I do every game. I don’t get too hyped up for anything. I try to put my best game together for the playoffs. Idaho is a good team, they are big and they play structurally sound and have some good players offensively. It is going to be a good challenge for us. We are getting ready for them and I think it is going to be a really good series. I think this will be a great series, our team is good, we are tight and we have gotten our called-up guys back. It is the best time of the season, this is what you work for.”
Statistics can be sliced and diced a hundred different ways and then analyzed, but perhaps the answer is not in the numbers. “Timely goals are going to matter, specialty teams are going to matter. There will be two extremely competitive teams trying to play their very best hockey to move to the next round. It is going to come down to who wants it more,” says Schneekloth. “Our guys showed a lot of heart, dedication and character all year long. No matter what, this team fought hard to the end every game. It is going to come down to which team is going to come out and play committed hockey from the drop of the first puck to the buzzer.”
Bootland, the team’s seasoned veteran knows what it takes to come out on the winning end. “It took me twelve years to win a championship. I try to let the guys know that we have a great team and we just can’t let this chance go by; that it is going to be hard, it is going to be a test, it is going to be tiring and you are going to be exhausted, but there are not many times when you are part of a team like this. When things got tough, whether guys got injured, or players were called up, no one quit, no one gave up. This team is a team that is never going to give up and that is what we have with this team.” Pierro-Zabotel shares that sentiment, “This is looking to be a really special team. We have all kinds of players and that fits in good for playoff hockey. I think a key factor will be who can step up at the right time and who finds the right place to score.” Schneekloth knows what it takes to be a champion. “This is a special team. You can see it when they step on the ice whether it is practice or a pregame skate. They care about one another and you need a team to care about one another if you are going to have success.”
With these two teams, it is going to come down to grit, that is, the relentless drive to be the best; the preparation to get there and a belief that nothing is going to stop you. To win the Eagles have to let their grit shine through.