It's been hit or miss for hockey teams in Colorado this year. The highs of an NCAA championship season from the University of Denver Pioneers have shared the scene with the lows of the Colorado Avalanche posting the worst record in the NHL.
But there's another team in the area that is on a championship run, and there's another local product that has been a major part of it.
After years of success in the American Hockey League, Niwot native Michael Sdao returned to Colorado this year and has played a significant role in the Colorado Eagles' run to the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.
The defenseman is known for his grit and toughness, and he displayed that all year while on the roster for the Eagles, a popular franchise in Northern Colorado which is vying for a third league title since its inception in 2003-04.
"It's great to be at this point in the season. I mean, playing hockey at the end of May and into June, there's only six teams in North America still playing so it's pretty special to be a part of that," Sdao said after the opening game of Colorado's series against the South Carolina Stingrays, a 3-2 double-overtime victory at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland. "It's been nice being home and having friends and family at the games."
Sdao is in his fourth professional season after having played at Princeton for four years. Prior to that, he attended Alexander Dawson (Dawson School) and was a proud member of the Boulder Bison in youth hockey.
The former seventh-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2009 has always been the enforcer-type, the guy you'd want on the ice when there's a vicious-and-perhaps-unnecessary hit on a smaller counterpart. That played true with the Eagles this year, as he racked up a career-most 177 penalty minutes in his second full season of action (played 62 games the prior two seasons before playing 61 with the Eagles in 2016-17).
But this year, he also had a scoring touch with a career-best nine goals and 13 points. The ECHL may be a rung below the AHL — the former is considered the 'Double-A' minor league to the NHL while the latter is the 'Triple-A' minor league — but Sdao, 27, has continued to want to get better in hopes that he can get another AHL contract in the future.
"I'm just pushing to get better every day, and I know I can get back to the level of play that I was at," Sdao said.
In the meantime, he is enjoying being part of the success of the Eagles, a team that won two Central Hockey League titles before switching to the more formidable ECHL in 2011-12. This year's Western Conference title was the first for Colorado in the ECHL.
Sdao's previous AHL experience did not include any playoff games. The Eagles' affiliation with the Avalanche has bolstered the team's playoff roster with players on loan, but Sdao has played in five postseason games registering an assist. The Eagles have taken a 2-0 series lead, and the teams will head to Charleston, S.C. for the next three games, if indeed a fifth game is needed.
Sdao has obviously wanted to play more in the playoffs, but he will continue to prepare the same way every practice hoping that it helps the team raise the Kelly Cup.
"You want to stay in the moment. You try and work on your game ... we have eight defensemen that can play, there's no question about it, so you just want to be ready to go when it's your time," Sdao said. "But it's definitely exciting to be this far."