Some of you may remember that the Utah Grizzlies were my first real hockey love. A lot of you also probably know that it’s been a dream of mine to work in hockey in some regard. Well, that dream has partly come true.
This season, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive credentials from the Utah Grizzlies to cover the team, and last night was the first game of the season.
The first period was fairly uneventful, though the Grizzlies managed to put up 13 shots to the Steelheads’ 7. No goals were scored, and each team took a penalty, but not a whole lot of note occurred. That all changed in the second period. The Grizzlies took control of the game as first C.J. Eick and then Jon Puskar scored less than three minutes apart, and things got a little chippy. Utah came out very much on top, with two penalties to Idaho’s three, and ten shots to Idaho’s five in addition to the two goals.
Then the Steelheads made things interesting.
Idaho began the third with far more energy than they had shown in the two previous periods, pressuring the Grizzlies, and eventually scoring on the power play at 3:16. Thanks largely to the play of Kevin Boyle, Utah was able to weather the storm, until Eick put away his second of the night with an authoritative shot from the slot. Ducks prospect Kenton Helgeson picked up a secondary assist on the tally. With less than five minutes left to play, newcomer Jordan Samuels-Thomas, who was noticeable on nearly every shift, put the finishing touch on the game.
The game felt far closer than the 4-1 score suggested, and the Steelheads out-shot the Grizzlies in the third to the tune of 18-11.
The power play (1/6 on the evening) looked a bit lackadaisical at times early on, as the Grizzlies had a little bit of trouble gaining or holding the zone, but it tightened up considerably as the game progressed. The penalty kill (1/5), on the other hand, looked very good throughout. Really, the defensive play overall was especially noticeable.
In addition to the goal-scorers Eick (named second star of the game), Puskar, and the aforementioned Samuels-Thomas, a number of other players stood out.
Brandon McNally, formerly of the Brampton Beast/St. John’s IceCaps (ECHL and AHL affiliates of the Montreal Canadiens) was noteworthy, primarily for his defensive skills, as the Grizzlies took quite a number of penalties, and he was a staple on the penalty kill.
Shane Walsh had four shots and an assist, Erik Higby five shots and an assist, and defenceman Mike Banwell had six shots and two assists.
The star of the game, however, was undoubtedly goaltender Kevin Boyle. In his first pro game, he was as cool as the proverbial cucumber. Despite going long stretches in the early going without seeing a shot, he never looked surprised or unprepared when they did come his way. In the third, he held down the fort until Eick added a little cushion to the lead. To see him, you would never have guessed that it was his first pro game.
“He makes some big saves, that’s for sure” said head coach Tim Branham after the game, “but he makes every save look easy. He’s one of those goaltenders that moves really well, controls his rebounds really well. The next time he plays, watch him, how many pucks that come off of him and go into the netting. He does a great job with it. He’s calm and cool, no matter what he’s doing.”
He added that as Boyle came off the ice after being named first star, he jokingly asked him if his heart rate had gone above 90 yet. If the outward signs were anything to go by, the answer could well have been no. “He’s pretty special,” Branham added, and given the evidence so far, it’s hard to disagree.
At the beginning of the season, for better or worse, there are always storylines surrounding a team. For the Habs, for instance, it is the P.K. Subban/Shea Weber trade. For the Grizzlies, it is clearly goaltending. Utah has had excellent starting goalies for quite a number of years now. If it wasn’t Aaron Dell (now backup for the San Jose Sharks) or Igor Bobkov, it was Ryan Faragher. This year, however, the goaltending depth is extraordinary. As Coach Branham said, he could pick any of their numbers out of a hat, and the team would be in good shape. So just who, exactly, are these stalwarts in net?
Faragher (26), returns for a third season, much to the delight of the Grizzlies faithful. In 41 games last year, he posted a .917 save percentage (Sv%), with 2.33 goals-against average (GAA), ending the season with a 24-13-4 record. He was sorely missed whenever he was called up to the AHL. Coach Branham once called him “the backbone of our team,” and his return alone would have put the Grizzlies in a good spot.
Ryan McKay (24) comes to the Grizzlies from Miami University Ohio, where his NCAA accomplishments include CCHA Regular Season Champion (2012-2013) and NCHC Champion (2014-15). In the Grizzlies’ second preseason game, he stopped 33 of the 34 shots he faced.
Last, but not least, is Boyle himself. Signed by Anaheim in March to a one-year contract, Boyle (also 24) spent half of his college career with UMass-Amherst, and the other half with UMass-Lowell. His 2015-16 season with UMass-Lowell was nothing short of spectacular. Going 24-10-5, his GAA was a dazzling 1.83, and his Sv% a very impressive .934. He was named NCAA (Hockey East) Goalie of the Year for his performance, and won (or was nominated for) quite a few other honours.
He played preseason games with Anaheim, San Diego and Utah, and attributed his surprising lack of nerves in his first pro game to these appearances, as well as to the fact that the team in front of him allowed him to ease into the swing of things by only allowing 12 shots in the first two periods. His mindset, he said, is “always just to win.” And that’s what he did.
Idaho and Utah will face off again tonight at the Maverik Center, and you can bet that fans and players alike will be at ease, no matter who gets the start.