By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
Utah Outliers (1) vs. Idaho Falls Spud Kings (5)
All games at Acord Ice Arena, Utah
Game 1: Saturday, March 11, 7:05 p.m. MST
Game 2: Sunday, March 12, 12:05 p.m. MST
Game 3: Monday, March 13, 12:05 p.m. MST (if necessary)
A playoff series win and a real shot at Nationals certainly makes it seem like the Idaho Falls Spud Kings’ season started in some other dimension. They fell 16-1 to the Northern Cyclones. Their next 11 games weren’t all that much better.
However, when former Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings Coach, and former USHL coach as well, Marty Quarters took over last fall, the ship started to turn around. They were never able to turn around the ship completely and get above .500, but nor did the first-year Spud Kings finish at sixth, finishing instead with the fifth seed.
“It’s been great. I work for an owner in Kevin Greene, who’s worked very hard on this team, along with GM Eric Hudson,” said Quarters. “The guys became competitive and started to believe in themselves. What they went through, it made it so much more satisfying to become successful. It’s not the outcome, but what you learn along the journey.”
The journey for the two-time Nationals qualifiers the Utah Outliers saw them take what seemed like five minutes to climb to first in the division. By Nov. 1, they were already 12-1-0-0 and they held a 10-point lead for first by January first of this year.
“I believe a big strength of our team is our depth. We have a lot of really good players on our team and we win by committee,” said Outliers Head Coach Paul Taylor. “Each game we play, we have four strong forward lines, seven defensemen, and two good goalies who are all capable of making a difference and helping our team win.”
The Outliers tried very hard to nail down the No. 1 overall seed in the league, but as it goes by winning percentage due to different game counts across the league, they finished just one-tenth of a percentage point behind the New York Aviators, .875-.865.
So, they’ll just have to work to be the best in the postseason now. Taylor said his team has been extremely focused on getting this series win, and then also capturing the Mountain’s top seed by winning the championship series the following weekend.
“We have worked on an assortment of systems since the regular season concluded – a lot of stuff that helps us play more connected and stay within our identity as a group,” said Taylor. “The players have had a couple of weeks to prepare and they are now eager to get started and begin competing for another Mountain Division title.”
Idaho Falls were able to defeat Northern Colorado – the same team that laid the 16-1 on them in September – in just two playoff games, the very definition of an in-season turnaround. Although many of the players are the same, the culture and essentially everything else is new since late last fall and it showed when they hit the ice in Greely, Colo. for 4-1 and 6-4 victories.
“[The Eagles’] Steve Haddon is a really good coach and a good playoff coach. I knew we’d have our hands full,” said Quarters. “We were banged up, with two of our better guys out for the second game. We turn negatives into positives, the positive thing is our team has changed, we’ve gotten better and improved. Utah’s been a top team the last few years. They’re one of the top teams this year and the best team we’ve played this year. They’ve been that all season. They’ve had to make more adjustments for us, than we had to make for them. Paul Taylor is a great coach, he coaches guys at a high level, so we have to be very prepared for them.”
“We had some entertaining and competitive games against Idaho Falls this season. They are a much-improved team since the beginning of the season,” Taylor added. “They have been playing good hockey and seem to have a lot of confidence in their game. Although we had good success against them during the regular season, it’s now playoffs, and we definitely won’t take them lightly. They are the most improved team in the Mountain Division and there is a reason they are playing in the second round so we need to be ready.”
Utah brings the weapons so many know so well, Will Cohen (81 points) and Miles McCue (77). They lead a veteran group where the team’s top six scorers, all totaling 376 points, are back from last year’s Nationals squad.
“I think it starts with all of our returners. They have the experience of playing in the playoffs and they know what it takes to be successful. We have also added some key pieces to our lineup recently and I expect they will step up in a big way during the playoffs,” Taylor said. “Ultimately, we have a lot of guys who we will be leaning on at different times and I think that’s what makes us a dangerous team.”
No matter which goalie they throw out there – Jaxon Letey, Nathan Dickey or Marco Felicetti – it’ll be a tough draw for Idaho Falls. The three average .916 together as a save percentage, led by Letey’s .936.
George Goodwin and Justin Davis combined for more than 100 points for the Spud Kings, with Goodwin leading the way at 52 points this season. With 43 points in 37 games, Matteo Mitrovic has shown he can be a two-way threat at defense.
“We’re going to have to be at the top of our game,” said Quarters. “A ‘keep it simple, stupid’ type of game and play it smart defensively.”