The Grizzlies returned to the Mav on Friday night for their first game of 2017. Kenton Helgeson returned to the lineup after a lengthy stint in San Diego, and defenseman Martin Nemcik made his home debut. Phil Pietroniro again lined up as a forward drawing in beside Helgesen and Jon Puskar, and in the absence of both Ryans, Justin Masterman backed up Troy Redmann.
The Grizzlies picked up four shots to Rapid City’s one in the first five minutes, though the flow of the play was of a fairly back-and-forth nature.
Unfortunately, it would be Rapid City who struck first as they out-skated the Grizzlies’ defence and Michael Young made the perfect cross-crease pass to Nicholas Miglio, beating Redmann clean at 8:32.
Michael Pelech had his second big chance of the period immediately afterwards, but the Grizzlies were unable to put the puck past Adam Morrison. However, the offensive zone pressure drew an interference call, and Utah got the first power play of the game.
Utah drew two consecutive penalties shortly thereafter, first Sam Windle for holding, and then Evan Stoflet for putting the puck over the glass a minute later with just over five minutes left in the period.
The Grizzlies penalty killers came up huge, especially Pelech, who made several fantastic plays to keep the puck away from the net, before making the final clear, and of course Redmann, who was a very strong presence in Utah’s net all night.
At the end of 20, the Grizzlies outshot Rapid City 10-7, but the Rush led 1-0.
Just moments into the second, Puskar took a stick to the face, and Utah got a chance on the man advantage. The Grizzlies set up well in the offensive zone, and made some nice passes, but also gave up a chance against that Redmann was just able to smother.
The play through the early minutes of the second was fairly even, with Bradford and Pietroniro getting exciting up ice rushes, among others, resulting in Utah taking the edge in shots 15-12.
Utah had a beautiful shift in the offensive zone at about the thirteen minute mark, as Aubin, Pelech, and Bradford skated circles around the Rush, and Nemcik and Banwell held the line. It paid off as Bradford put the puck past Morrison to tie the game up.
About a minute later, Anthony Collins put Nemcik into the boards by the Rush bench, Nemcik objected, and the two dropped the gloves. It was more of a wrestling match than a fight, though Nemcik got the takedown. Both got five, and Travis Howe was also sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct.
However, it would be the Grizzlies who scored short handed as Bradford sprang Ralph Cuddemi on a beautiful 2-on-1 with Mike Banwell. Cuddemi beat Morrison handily, and the Grizzlies killed off the rest of the penalty with relative ease.
Utah got a chance at a power play of their own as Michael Young got sent off for roughing with 2:15 left to play in the period. They got several good opportunities, taking a number of shots, but were unable to capitalise, and the period and the man advantage ended together. 40 minutes saw the Grizzlies up 2-1, outshooting Rapid City 21-18.
In the third period the Grizzlies, and especially C.J. Eick, came out flying. Puskar laid a huge hit, and on the same shift, Helgesen fired a shot on Morrison.
However, it wasn’t until nearly the halfway mark that things got really exciting.
With 12:51 left to go, Bradford got behind Morrison in some chaos around the net, and tapped the puck in for his second of the game.
Four minutes later, Utah caused mayhem in the offensive zone, yet again, and Morrison stumbled getting back to his net. Cuddemi spun in the slot and scored his second of the night, giving the Grizzlies a 4-1 lead.
The Grizzlies continued to largely carry play in the third, with brief stretches in their own end. In one such moment, Bradford showed that there’s more to his game than goal scoring, going down to block a shot before sending the play the other way. Troy Redmann also made a few key saves as the time ticked down.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Grizzlies remained up 4-1, and had outshot the Rush 28-24 despite having led through most of two periods, to start the new year in style.
As they have for several seasons now, the Grizzlies seem to really be coming together as a team around the holidays — hopefully just in time to dig in and make a push for the playoffs.
“These are big games, coming up,” said Bradford after the game, “The next four after this one tonight that we know we need to sort of win to climb back in the standings here and give us a chance down the stretch, so we’re definitely not taking it for granted, I think we’re starting to play good hockey here, minus the Allen game, a little run and gun there. But the team has done well, and we’re all reaping the benefits of that.”
He later added that the Grizzlies are starting to find their identity as a team: “We’ve made a couple moves, and sort of have our identity now that we’re starting to come together, and we’re coming together at the right time. You don’t want to leave it till the last minute, we need these wins here, so I can’t say enough about the guys in there, they’re really pulling for each other, they’re playing great hockey, and hopefully we keep it going.”
On his two goal performance, Bradford said, “It’s sort of like an old cliche, go to the net and good things happen, you know, I found I hadn’t scored in a couple games here, and I hadn’t gone to the dirty areas, so tonight I tried to make it my goal to attack the net there, and of course two pucks pop out to me in front and made it easy, but good things happen when you go to the net, and I was thankful that happened to me tonight.”
Go to the net, and good things happen indeed. Both of Bradford’s goals, and Cuddemi’s second were results of chaos around the Rush net caused by a strong Utah presence.
Once again, the Bradford-Pelech-Aubin line came up big for the Grizzlies, having cemented themselves as a bonafide first line powerhouse, and collecting six points between them in the contest. “They’re best friends off the ice,” Bradford said of his line mates, “And they get each other on the ice, they’re really good together, they’re really smart players, they’ve been around in pro-hockey for a while now, so I’m just trying to learn off them as much as I can, try and be a sponge, they’ve got a lot of insight and a lot of skill plays that I can learn from them. So I’m trying to learn off them, read off them, and thankfully, they’ve been able to help me out here.”
Aubin, Pelech and Bradford are now tied for a team-leading 25 points on the season (though in the case of Pelech and Bradford, not all those points came with the Grizzlies).
If the evidence is anything to go by, the Grizzlies do indeed seem to be coming together right now, their top line is on fire, players like Cuddemi, Redmann, and Daly are going strong, and the team is playing some great hockey — and right now they’re doing it down some key players. Cam Reid, Colin Martin, and Erik Higby are all out with injuries, and Ryan Faragher remains with the San Diego Gulls.
The Grizzlies continue the marathon against the Rush with their second home game tonight at 7 PM before they head out to Rapid City for three games next week.