Ever since the Phoenix Roadrunners joined the IHL last year, they have been the Golden Eagles' No. 1 rival. Part of it has to do with the proximity of the two franchises. Part of it has to do with the physical style both employ.
Last year the two squads engaged in several wild duels, and it didn't let up this year as things often got nasty out on the ice. Salt Lake won the season series 8-7, grabbing the edge with a shootout victory in Phoenix 10 days ago. It also gave the Eagles a 61-60 edge in the goal-scoring department.Now the two rivals are matched up in the first round of the IHL Turner Cup playoffs. The first game is tonight at the Salt Palace (7 p.m.) and the best-of-seven series continues Thursday and Saturday in Phoenix.
"If there's one team that concerns me, it's Phoenix," said Eagle coach Bob Francis. "They're very strong up front with very skilled players and they're very deep. It's going to make for a good series."
The depth factor could work to the Roadrunners' advantage. They have 25 active players, while the Eagles have struggled lately to meet the 18-man limit. Although the Roadrunners will have to sit out several players each game, they could have an advantage in a long series, especially if the Eagles suffer any more injuries.
The schedule could also favor the Roadrunners, especially if they steal a road win tonight. Because of conflicts with the NBA teams in each city, Games 2 and 3 fit best in Phoenix this weekend. A loss tonight could put Salt Lake in deep trouble.
"We lose a bit of advantage (with the schedule), so we need to be prepared," said Francis. "We want to come back from Phoenix with a 2-1 lead."
Francis says the two teams respect each other's physical style. The Eagles led the IHL in penalty minutes while Phoenix ranked fourth. But he figures there will be less fighting during the playoffs than there has been during the regular season.
"We're going to have to utilize our physical play," he said. "But the physical part of the game is overemphasized in the playoffs. I don't think you'll see too many fights, but you'll see physical play."
The Eagles rested two of their top three scorers, Rich Chernomaz and Andrew McKim, for the season finale Sunday. And for the first time in over a month, the Eagles will be at full strength defensively. Mark Osiecki returned to the lineup last week and Kevin Grant returned Sunday.
Phoenix is led by Sylvain Couturier, who ranked fourth in the IHL with 50 goals. Former Eagle Rick Hayward is the club's top bad boy with 369 penalty minutes, seventh most in the league.
Francis said he doesn't plan to play just one goaltender for the playoffs. He has rotated Steve Guenette and Warren Sharples for the past two months and he said both will play in the playoffs, with Gunette the likely starter tonight. "Both deserve a shot and they will both play," said Francis.