They may have been wearing Vader’s clones on their jerseys, but the Force was strong with the Grizzlies on Saturday night.
The opening minutes were largely played in the Grizzlies’ end, with Ryan McKay making some good saves, and Phil Pietroniro getting a very nice shot going the other way.
Utah got the first power play of the night at 3:25 as Ryan Walters tripped a Utah player behind the Grizzlies’ net. Rapid City got the first shot of the power play with a short handed rush up ice, but McKay and the Grizzlies’ defence were able to break it up.
The Grizzlies and the Rush exchanged several penalties in the next several minutes as the game turned into a race up and down the ice.
With roughly six minutes to go, the puck appeared to trickle past McKay while the Grizzlies were on the power play, despite a valiant effort, but the ref immediately waived it off due to a distinct kicking motion, and no sooner had Rapid City returned to full strength when they took another penalty.
After 20, shots were 9-7 for Utah, but the score remained tied up at 0.
Just about three minutes into the second, Rapid City scored again, going up 2-0, but throughout most of the second, Utah outshot the Rush. Erik Higby had quite a number of good chances throughout the period, and you got the feeling that he was going to score.
With three minutes left to play, Higby did just that, after an excellent stretch of offensive pressure, cutting the deficit to one.
Five seconds before the end of the period, Travis Howe and Brayden Low squared off behind the Rapid City net after a big hit. They both got sent off for fighting, but Low got an extra two for roughing, and the period ended with the Grizzlies outshooting the Rush to the tune of 24-12.
The third period was a wild ride right from the gate, as Mathieu Aubin scored from the point to tie the game at two with :39 left to go in the power play.
About two minutes later, Taylor Richart got an elbowing penalty after a big hit, and that’s when things got really interesting.
McKay took a puck off the mask, and left the ice bleeding heavily. Down Ryan Faragher and Kevin Boyle, the Grizzlies had signed Jay Stevens to be their emergency backup. Stevens, a 43-year-old firefighter, has served as Utah’s emergency back up on numerous occasions, but had never made an appearance for them until Saturday night.
As the ice crew removed McKay’s blood from the ice, and Stevens warmed up, Grizzlies fans had no idea what to expect, with the team on the penalty kill, and the game tied at two.
Stevens put any questions to rest immediately, and the Grizzlies killed off the penalty. They got a power play of there own at 6:35. At the end of the power play, shots were 29-19 for Utah, and Stevens was a perfect six for six.
But it wasn’t over quite yet. Higby went to the box for tripping with 7:05 left to play, and shortly thereafter, Josh MacDonald and Brenden Walker went off for Rapid City, while Howe was sent off for Utah.
At that point, McKay returned to the ice, and the crowd gave Stevens a rousing ovation as he headed to the bench, where his teammates gave him a hero’s welcome, his perfect 10:35 and seven saves having kept the Grizzlies in the game.
Rapid City and Utah exchanged several power play opportunities, but with only one minute left, and the Grizzlies out shooting the Rush 30-22, the score was still tied at two.
But the Grizzlies weren’t done. With just 40 seconds left in the period, Higby scored his second of the night from Bradford and Banwell to give the Grizzlies a 3-2 lead.
Though Rapid City called their time out to regroup, it made no difference, and Utah came away the winners.
Higby, Aubin and Stevens were named the three stars of the game.
“The guys just did an awesome job.” Branham said of his team after the game, “The way they pulled together, stuck with it, never said die. Jay Stevens, the job he did there in net was just tremendous. For Aubin to get that tying goal, and Higby to pounce on a rebound to win it, you can’t say enough how proud I am of this group, the character that’s in that room.”
“They’ve put up with a lot of crap this year, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs, and they’re coming out clean on the other end. We’ve just got to keep it up, savour the moment, and keep fighting, clawing our way back up in the standings.”
Of Higby he added: “We were saying on the bench before he got that game winner, ‘we’re gonna get one here, we’re gonna get one here’. It was a great rebound, he darted down there, right where we’ve been telling him to go for the last month.”
“The amount of adjustments we had to make today was crazy. You have to top your hat to these boys. They pulled together as a team, they executed, they listened, you can’t ask for anything more.”
The good night continued after the game, as the Star Wars jerseys raised $18,731 for the Make-A-Wish foundation. Ryan McKay’s jersey topped the sale, going for $1,800!