Coming off a pair of much needed wins, the Grizzlies faced off against the league leading Toledo Walleye. Ryan McKay got the start, looking for his third straight win, with new acquisition Troy Redmann as his backup. Other new players included newcomer Brad Navin, and the returnee, Michael Pelech.
Toledo put pressure on the Grizzlies off the opening faceoff, but after five minutes, the Grizzlies had begun to push back, leading in shots 2-1, and spending several consecutive shifts in the offensive zone.
Toledo returned the favor, but McKay stood tall. At 7:53 Tim Daly got a roughing penalty, and the Grizzlies’ penalty kill looked exceptionally good, right up until they let in the 1-0 goal with two seconds left.
The rest of the period was largely a back and forth affair, the Walleye coming out with the slight advantage, but with the Grizzlies, and Erik Higby especially, having several good chances.
The Utah came out absolutely buzzing to start the second, controlling a majority of the play in the first five minutes.
Unfortunately, despite the strong play, Toledo got the second goal of the game as Tyler Sikura rang the puck off the post, and then collected his own rebound.
Toledo largely hemmed the Grizzlies into their own end for most of the end of the second, but Utah managed to keep the Walleye along the boards, and with 2:14 left to play, Brad Navin scored his first goal with the team off a turnover to put them within one.
The third period did not begin well for the Grizzlies, as they were hemmed in their own end for almost the first four minutes straight. McKay was huge for Utah during that stretch, but Toledo went up 3-1. Less than a minute later, the Walleye scored again after a scramble in front of Utah’s net.
Taylor Richart got the Grizzlies’ first shot of the period about eight minutes in, and after that, the Grizzlies had a little more success.
With about seven minutes left, Erik Higby had his third big chance of the night, and as he was slashed going in, he was awarded a penalty shot. Unfortunately, though he beat Heeter, the puck went off the post and out.
Daly got called for interference with just under six minutes left to play, but the Grizzlies shut the Walleye down, Puskar got a short handed chance, and right off the penalty kill, Navin got his second of the game to cut the deficit in half.
With 2:19 left to play, Branham pulled McKay in favour of the extra skater. It payed off as Toledo iced the puck three times, and then Mathieu Aubin scored with 1:44 to go.
Despite a strong effort, the Grizzlies were unable to tie the game, and Toledo scored into the empty net with five seconds remaining.
The most encouraging thing about the game was that, except for the five minutes or so to open the first and the third, the Grizzlies were definitely able to skate with Toledo, allowing 24 shots altogether, and getting 20 of their own.
“We know we can play with them,” said goal scorer Brad Navin after the game, and it was a sentiment echoed by Coach Branham.
“Didn’t think we played with enough energy in the first period,” he said, “I thought we gave them way too much respect, and then we realized that hey, we can play with this team, then we played pretty decent in the second period. Then in the first five minutes of the third, they kind of took it to us, and we were sitting back again, and then when we wanted to turn it, we turned it up.”
So where do the Grizzlies go from here?
“We gotta learn from that, just have confidence right from the start.”Branham concluded, “Coming off two big wins, I’m not sure why we didn’t come out with energy in that first period, I think we were kind of just worried and taken back, and thought they were going to be coming at us like super humans or something, but once we realized they were just a normal team, we started playing.”
On the return of Michael Pelech to the Grizzlies, he added, “He’s huge. Huge. The way he controls the play, he’s great down low, he’s a leader, he’s great on draws, it’s really nice to have that anchor back, we’ve really missed him, so definitely a big addition to have back.”
One gets the feeling that we’re starting to see real shape of the 2016-17 Utah Grizzlies coming together, and it’s an exciting prospect.
The Grizzlies take on Toledo again tonight in the second of three home games against the Walleye.