By Brian Lester
One year after being denied the Thorne Cup Championship by the rival El Paso Rhinos, the Idaho Junior Steelheads have returned to the top of the Western States Hockey League.
Idaho capped off the run to a title in late April by winning the championship series three games to one over the Rhinos.
Idaho lost the opener 4-3, but won the next three games by the scores of 5-2, 4-2 and 8-0 to win their fourth title in the last five years.
“Not winning it last year was a huge driving factor for the returning players,” Idaho assistant coach Trent Ritchie said. “They understood the importance of winning a title and the rivalry Idaho has with El Paso. They helped the younger players understand that, too. Nothing but a championship was going to be good enough for this team.”
Ritchie said the series was challenging from start to finish but was pleased with how the Steelheads responded after losing Game 1 on the road.
“It was a great series against a very good team,” Ritchie said. “El Paso was physical and played hard, and our guys responded to that and matched their effort. We were a very resilient team. It feels great to see the guys come out on top.”
Idaho could have set itself up to sweep the series after building a 3-0 lead in the opening game. Arturs Sevcenko tallied one goal and an assist despite the loss while goalie Tyler Hough made 20 saves.
“It was really tough to lose that first game,” Ritchie said. “We didn’t finish in that game but we learned from it and came back strong in a tough environment.”
The Steelheads scored three goals in the third period to nail down the 5-2 win and head home with the series even at 1-1. Johannes Yucel came through with two goals in the period, including an empty-netter, while Austin Althaus racked up 20 saves.
Idaho broke a 2-2 tie in the third period of game three to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Sevcenko paved the way with a pair of goals and Hough nailed down the win as he made 18 saves.
The finale was dominated by the Steelheads, with Kyle Williams and Macky Power racking up two goals apiece. Hough tallied nine saves in goal. Sevcenko dished out four assists to fuel the offensive attack.
Ritchie said the team’s depth and balance was vital to its success, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
“We have four very good lines and we kept pressure on them in every game,” Ritchie said. “Our depth played a big role for us. I thought both of our goaltenders did a tremendous job throughout the series and our defense took pride in playing as a team and limiting shots.”
Right from the start this season, Idaho harbored hopes of being a champion.
“We came into the season expecting to win a championship,” Ritchie said. “I thought we had a special group of players and they had the confidence they could get the job done. They stepped up when it mattered. I also thought this team was very close and played well together. They also worked hard all season.”
Winning a championship adds to the profile of a team and Idaho has further established itself as one of the top junior hockey teams in the country by taking home the Thorne Cup. Ritchie said the success will help make a difference on the recruiting trail.
“The recruiting starts now, and when you can tell kids the team has won championships, it means a lot,” Ritchie. “Everyone wants to be a part of a winning team. We also continue to develop guys who get the chance to move up or play in college. The challenge now is finding players to fill those spots and being ready to contend for a title again next year.”
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