Idaho has established itself as the marquee franchise in the Western States Hockey League.
That reputation was solidified Sunday night on the home ice of the Steelheads, who clinched their third consecutive Thorne Cup with a 4-2 win over the Bay Area Seals in front of a sell-out crowd.
Winning one title is tough enough. Winning three is remarkable. Yet, the shock factor isnâ€™t too high as far as Idaho head coach John Olver is concerned.
â€œThe first one surprised me, but weâ€™ve been able to sustain success by recruiting great players,â€ Olver said. â€œWe had tremendous leadership this year, too, and the character and work ethic of our team is tremendous. It doesnâ€™t surprise me that weâ€™ve been able to stay on a roll.â€
The third title didnâ€™t come easy.
The Steelheads led the Seals 3-1 after one period but were only up 3-2 heading into the third period.
Idaho held a 46-29 edge in shots and scored two of its goals on power plays, including one by Filip Kasaly.
Kasaly, the Thorne Cup MVP, finished with two goals and Kirk Van Arkel and Stefan Brucato scored the other goals for Idaho while goalie Blake Mendenhall racked up 27 saves.
The Steelheads opened the Thorne Cup championship weekend by beating Fresno and then beat Southern Oregon twice to punch a ticket to the title game.
Bay Area came into that title game as one of the hottest teams in the league, and the fact that Idaho was able to hold on against the Seals made the championship that much more special.
â€œIt was very gratifying,â€ Olver said. â€œIt was a very difficult game and Bay Area is a very good hockey team. We have a lot of respect for them. They have been playing really well and it was a victory we had to earn. We had a great crowd and the fans helped provided us with the energy to come out on top.â€
Idaho was challenged throughout the game and often found itself trying to kill off power-play opportunities for the Seals.
â€œIt was a real struggle because we played shorthanded for a good part of the night,â€ Olver said. â€œIt was difficult for us to get into a rhythm after the great start to the game, but we found a way to step up and get the win.â€
Of course, Idaho did find a way to make plays when it mattered and was sharp enough offensively to pull away for the victory.
â€œWe showed a lot of determination,â€ Olver said. â€œWe had some chances and were very opportunistic.â€
The Steelheads werenâ€™t bad on defense either, especially with Mendenhall in goal. He played all 60 minutes and turned in one of his best efforts of the season.
â€œBlake was on top of his game,â€ Olver said. â€œHe was extra sharp and made some big saves. I thought our goaltending was good all year from Blake and Daniel Selby. Both of those guys have played well. There is no doubt our goaltending is one of the main reasons we were able to be in a position to play for the championship again.â€
With the WSHL championship tourney in the books, the Steelheads shifted their attention to the United Hockey Union national tourney in Las Vegas. Olver said he liked the way his team was playing heading into the tourney.
â€œWe are playing our best hockey right now,â€ Olver said. â€œTo win a league championship is not easy, and we have been able to keep things going in the right direction. The good thing is weâ€™ve stayed healthy for the most part all year and we are excited about the way things have gone for us this year. We are definitely motivated.â€
Update: Since this story was printed in the USA Junior Hockey Magazine, the Steelheads have gone 3-0 at the United Hockey Union AAU Hockey Nationals in Las Vegas, Nev. Follow the action here.
Read past Western States Hockey League stories in our archives:
San Diego Gulls enjoy rejuvenation after slow start
Fresno Monsters scare league with 12 straight wins
Idaho Jr. Steelheads out to defend title, nothing less