If the NCDC season were to end today, the Idaho Falls Spud Kings would make the playoffs — thanks to a 4-0 win over the Utah Outliers Friday night.

The Pueblo Bulls, who occupied the final playoff spot in the NCDC Mountain Division until now, lost 7-2 to the Ogden Mustangs Friday.

Friday marked the return of Matteo Mitrovic, the Spud Kings’ all-time leading scorer, who got traded to the Outliers earlier this month. It also marked the return of Matvei Naumov, who had been out since Jan. 19 with a hand injury.

The Spud Kings also honored Idaho National Laboratory Friday night with custom INL jerseys.

The Spud Kings beat the Utah Outliers 4-0 Friday night.

The Spud Kings beat the Utah Outliers 4-0 Friday night. Photo credit: Will Vasseur

The goaltending

Goaltender Tucker Inabinet registered his first shutout as a Spud King, earning honors as the first star of the game — but it didn’t necessarily come easily. His team allowed a number of high-danger scoring chances in the first period, but Inabinet answered the call every time.

Tucker Inabinet stopped 27 shots en route to a shutout Friday night.

Tucker Inabinet stopped 27 shots en route to a shutout Friday night. Photo credit: Will Vasseur

Although Inabinet was a major reason for his team’s success, he preferred to focus on the team in his post-game interview.

“It’s great for the guys and our confidence going into a playoff push,” Inabinet said.

Inabinet also wanted to give a shoutout to his grandmother on his special night.

John Becanic congratulates Tucker Inabinet after his shutout.

John Becanic congratulates Tucker Inabinet after his shutout. Photo credit: Will Vasseur

The goaltending at the other end of the ice was a different story. After allowing the fourth goal just past the halfway mark of the game, Outliers goalie Philip Rondina was relieved of his duties. Sam Straff, who replaced Rondina, was a perfect eight for eight, but it was too little too late.

The defense

Despite the fact that the first period ended 2-0 in favor of the Spud Kings, head coach John Becanic called it the worst period his team has played since he got there.

“We gave them too much open ice,” Becanic said. They’re a very fast and skilled team.”

Becanic enjoyed the second period much more — and it didn’t hurt that his team matched its offensive output from the first period, making it 4-0 after 40 minutes.

A key difference between this week’s shutout and last Saturday’s 7-6 overtime win over the Provo Predators was the Spud Kings’ decision making, especially in the defensive end. Several of the Predators’ goals last week came from loose pucks in the slot, but this week the Spud Kings made sure to clear the puck before any issues arose.

Becanic referred to it as getting in the way. “If you’ve got five bodies getting in the way with five sticks, it’s harder to play (against),” he said.

The Spud Kings spent all three of their practices this week blocking shots. Becanic noticed a difference in the second period, specifically mentioning DJ MacLeish’s pair of blocks.

“I like where our identity’s going,” Becanic said. “It’s starting to look more like the team we want to be.”

The offense

It may seem counter-intuitive to mention a defensive defenseman when talking about the Spud Kings’ offensive success, but Franco Canevari was a major story in this game. Canevari tallied a goal and an assist. It was his first goal in the USPHL through 18 games.

Franco Canevari leads the handshake line after his first-ever NCDC goal.

Franco Canevari leads the handshake line after his first-ever NCDC goal. Photo credit: Will Vasseur

More impressive than Canevari’s goal, however, was his primary assist on Luke Steffen’s goal. Canevari entered the offensive zone with the puck on his stick, then faked a drop pass by leaving the puck and kicking it back up to his stick as he cut around the defenseman. He then fed a backhand pass to Steffen, who made no mistake putting it in the back of the net.

Owen Pitters and Sacha Trudel also scored for the Spud Kings, with Pitters’ goal counting as the game-winner.

What’s next?

The Spud Kings take on the Mustangs Saturday night in Ogden. The game, which starts at 7:15 p.m., can be streamed on FloHockey.TV with a subscription.

Their next home game will be Saturday, Feb. 16, when they face the Mustangs again.