Utah Grizzlies: Unbowed, Unbent, Only Slightly Broken

When the Utah Grizzlies and the Colorado Eagles play, you may fear for the Grizzlies’ lives, but you’ll never be bored. The Eagles are big, they’re nasty, and to top it off, they’re chock full of talent. But the Grizzlies are every bit as skilled, never ones to back down from a fight, and are happy to give as good as they get. As a result, gratuitous penalties and painfully close games are par for the course when these two teams square off. Saturday’s game was no exception to the rule.

After the physical game on Friday night, the Grizzlies were down Eric Springer, Jon Puskar and Taylor Richart. As only Travis Howe and Colin Martin replaced them, the Grizzlies faced an uphill climb, playing short-handed against the meanest team in their division for the second time in as many days.

Shane Walsh opened the scoring for Utah 10:41 into the first period off a nice little drop pass from Tim Daly and Austen Brassard, and then the game took on all the hallmarks of an Eagles-Grizzlies tilt.

Jessey Astles plastered Daly to the boards, and Martin flew in to defend his teammate. Both Astles and Daly would get double minors for roughing, followed just two minutes later by Michael Sdao and Howe, who also got roughing penalties after a scrum in front of the Eagles’ net. Less than a minute after that another Grizzlies’ chance led to another net-front scuffle, and both Brandon McNally and Sean Zimmerman were sent to the box; Zimmerman with a double minor for roughing, and McNally with a minor for slashing.

Though Walsh was again flying on the Grizzlies’ power play, they were unable to capitalize. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Jesse Mychan, one of Colorado’s leading scorers, got in behind Utah’s defence, and tied the game up with 1:44 left in the period.

Less than a minute later, Martin tripped up Teigan Zahn, and the pair dropped the gloves for real, sending Colorado to the power play to end the period. After 20, shots were 8-6 for the Grizzlies, the score 1-1, with 30 penalty minutes already assessed.

The Grizzlies killed off the first-period penalty, but a few minutes later found themselves again on the kill after Daly was sent to the box for hooking. Ryan Faragher stonewalled Mychen, and C.J. Eick, corralling the puck in his own zone, blew into the Eagles’ end and nearly had a breakaway. Although Eick was unsuccessful, Kenton Helgesen followed up Eick’s excellent shift with one of his own, blasting a short-handed point shot through a screen for his first goal of the year.

The rest of the second period was fairly uneventful by way of goals or penalties, but there was no shortage of chances, possibly missed calls (including what should probably have been a couple of Eagles’ penalties against Phil Pietroniro), and general ill will all ’round. The end of the second saw the Grizzlies leading 2-1, and holding the smallest of edges in shots, outshooting the Eagles 17-16.

The pace of the third was good, but neither team was able to muster more than one shot in the opening five minutes. Helgesen had another big shot from the point just after the 10-minute mark, and Faragher smothered the puck on Matt Garbowsky, who nearly managed to sneak past the Grizzlies’ defence. With five to go, shots were 25-24 for the Grizzlies, and they were maintaining the 2-1 lead, but with the Eagles, you can never rest comfortably on such a slim advantage.

With just under three minutes to play in the period, Erik Higby took a slashing penalty, Faragher made some huge saves, and the penalty was killed off. However, with about 30 seconds left in the game, Colorado pulled their goalie and called a timeout. A mere four seconds later, with a swarm of bodies in front of the Utah net, Luke Salazar somehow trickled the puck over Faragher to tie the game up, and a scrum broke out. Both Ralph Cuddemi and Cole Sanford were sent to the box off the ensuing faceoff, and the game went to overtime.

Because of course it did.

A wild five minutes of hockey — in which there were definitely too many men on the ice for both teams at one point, Daly rang a shot off the post, Faragher made a huge save, and the Eagles continued to target Pietroniro — solved nothing, and the game went to the shootout.

Aubin (missed the net), Cuddemi (saved by Lieuwen) and Higby (lost control of the puck) all shot for the Grizzlies, while Faragher stopped Pierro-Zabotel, Garbowsky hit the crossbar, Salazar was robbed by a beautiful toe save, and Mychen too was unable to score for Colorado before Walsh put the game away 3-2 for the Grizzlies.

With the victory, the Grizzlies remain unbeaten at home, improve to 5-1 overall, Faragher has won four straight, and the team finds themselves on top of the Mountain Division. They also improve to 9-3 against Colorado in the regular season over the past two years.

Although Tim Branham, the Grizzlies’ head coach and general manager, had no concrete explanation for why his squad is consistently able to come out on top in such closely contested games against the skilled and nasty Eagles, he did add that “we have big players that play here in Utah, and big players play in big games, and when Colorado is in your building, you better be sure you come ready to play.”

Come to play they certainly did.

Walsh Continues to Shine

Shane Walsh continues to be a force to be reckoned with, scoring the game’s opening and winning goals, and being generally noticeable all over the ice at all times. He now has four goals and two assists over six games, trailing only Jon Puskar in team scoring, and has been named a runner-up for October’s CCM ECHL Rookie of the Month. He was named third star of the game.

First Star Honors

Kenton Helgesen was named first star, and had another terrific night again doing double duty for the short-handed Grizzlies. Coach Branham had nothing but praise for the Ducks’ prospect.

“He’s done tremendous. He’s come a long way from last year. And we’ve utilized him in the front, we’ve utilized him on the back end, he scored a huge goal for us today, he’s played big minutes. He has definitely come to play this year. He’s done a fabulous job.”

The flexibility Helgesen gives the Grizzlies by being able to play forward and defence has been a big benefit to the team in the past two games.

“It’s tough to do,” Branham added. “You have to think differently, so for him to just do that is great. He’s had a great season so far.”

Helgesen now has three points in four games, and is a +2 with three shots.

Firing on all Cylinders

In their six games this season, the Grizzlies have two or more points from all but three of their skaters. Jon Puskar holds the lead with seven points, Walsh has six, and Brassard five.

Even more impressive, there are six players (not counting Samuels-Thomas, alas) who are at or near a point per game. Puskar and Walsh, of course, lead the list, but there are also Colin Martin (1G, 2A in three games), Zac Larraza (1G, 1A in two games), Austen Brassard (1G, 4A in five games) and Helgesen (1G, 2A in four).

Combine the team’s excellent scoring contributions with Faragher’s goaltending (which saw him named one of the runners-up for October’s goalie of the month) and you have a very strong team.

The Grizzlies begin a grueling stretch of four games in five nights in two different cities starting tonight in Tulsa before playing Friday and Saturday in Wichita, and Sunday back in Tulsa.

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