With three games in four nights against each other, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles and Phoenix Roadrunners are staging what could be a playoff preview coming next month to a hockey rink near you.
The Eagles took the first of the mini-series, 4-3 at the Salt Palace Wednesday night thanks to a few untimely Roadrunner mistakes.The two rivals go at it again Friday night at the Palace, before heading down to Phoenix for another game Saturday night. If Salt Lake and Phoenix hold on to second and third places as they currently stand, they'll be playing a best-of-7 series starting the second week of April.
Although Wednesday's game didn't mean much standings-wise for Salt Lake, which came in 16 points behind first-place Peoria and 17 ahead of Phoenix, it was big from a psychological standpoint since they trailed the season series six games to five.
"This was an important win for us," said Eagle defenseman Rick Lessard, who scored the first Eagle goal. "They've won the last three meetings and we'll probably end up playing them in the playoffs. We had to prove we're capable of beating them."
The loss left Phoenix Coach Ralph Backstrom shaking his head at the missed opportunity to solidify third place.
"We made the mistakes and they jumped all over them," said Backstrom. `We played a pretty good game other than that."
And the Roadrunners did. They outshot Salt Lake 34-24 and led 2-1 and 3-2.
The mistake on the final goal was actually a result of a great play by Eagle forward Sergei Priakin as much as it was a mistake by Phoenix.
The Eagles' Scott McCrady had sent the puck from deep in Salt Lake territory and it appeared Phoenix's Petr Prajsler was going to get to it just behind his own net for an icing call. However, Priakin caught him from behind and lifted the stick of Prajsler, who kept on going without the puck. Priakin then turned and fed Paul Kruse streaking toward the goal for the game-winner at 10:29.
"It was just a fluke - it was easy," shrugged Priakin, a Soviet who speaks little English.
Backstrom was upset with his player. "Our guy pulled up. He got beat to the puck and shouldn't have gotten beat. Those mistakes kill you."
The tying goal three minutes earlier came off a face-off just six seconds after a Phoenix penalty. Darryl Olsen slapped the goal home from the blue line.
The Eagles' second goal, which tied the score at 2-2 in the second period, came after Phoenix defenseman Eric Ricard whiffed on a shot from the blue line and Salt Lake took it on a 2-on-1 break with Martin Simard scoring from Andrew McKim.
"It was an outstanding effort," said Eagle Coach Bob Francis, who had only four defensemen available. "We overcame a lot of adversity, but we found solutions."
While Salt Lake's win widened the gap between the two rivals, it left Phoenix still just seven points in front of fourth-place Milwaukee and eight ahead of fifth-place San Diego in the IHL West. If the Roadrunners fall behind both those teams they won't make the playoffs.
"The way we're going, we have to have some concern right now," said Backstrom, whose team has lost six of its last seven.