Friday night’s game began the first of two hugely important games for Utah in terms of the standings, as they faced off against Alaska, who, coming into the game, held a nine point lead. The lineup remained mostly the same, Evan Stoflet coming in for Mike Banwell being the only change.
The hostilities started even before the puck dropped, as Travis Howe and Garet Hunt began what turned into a gathering of both teams by the penalty boxes in warm-ups. The situation defused, but did not go away, as would later be seen.
Alaska began crisply, collecting three of the first four shots, but the Grizzlies kept their legs moving, and Ryan Faragher was, as always, rock solid.
At 3:26, Howe and Hunt dropped the gloves right off the faceoff, as the situation from warm-ups bubbled up. Howe absolutely pummeled Hunt, though they both remained upright, and were sent off to cool their heels.
Unfortunately, it was Alaska who struck first, as Stephen Perfetto put the puck past Faragher at 5:06, and then the Grizzlies went to the penalty kill on a roughing call on Kenton Helgesen. Utah’s penalty kill remained strong however, allowing only one shot, which Faragher snagged easily.
Utah got some chances of their own around Alaska’s net, including a point blank chance from Brad Navin, and the Grizzlies drew a power play of their own with about eleven minutes left to play. they did get a few chances, but several times had to chase the puck down, and seemed to lack urgency.
They got another not long after, and there was nothing sleepy about this one, as they kept possession in the offensive zone, Cam Reid got a big shot on net, and Michael Pelech got a hold of the puck and put it around Kevin Carr.
Jon Puskar took an interference penalty with six minutes left, but the penalty kill kept Alaska running down the puck in their own zone. The game became noticeably more physical in the aftermath, and with 2:53 left, Howe and Mackenze Stewart dropped the gloves. Howe got the take down, and the two as the instigator. Utah killed off the penalty, largely thanks to a couple of great saves from Faragher, including a gorgeous windmill.
At the end of the first period, 30 penalty minutes had already been assessed, shots were 11-8 for Alaska, but the score was all tied up at one.
Alaska had all the jump through the first minute of the second period, running the Grizzlies around in their own zone, and hitting a crossbar, but as the period progressed, Utah pushed back. Utah and Alaska both took a number of penalties through the middle of the frame, and Faragher was huge for Utah, though the defensive play of the Grizzlies was also fairly strong.
Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of Faragher and the Grizzlies, the puck took a series of bounces that ultimately landed it in the back of the net with just 17 seconds left in the period. The goal was given to Perfetto, for his second of the game.
The Grizzlies got out to their best start in the third period, holding on to the puck through most of the first two minutes, but they were unable to generate much by way of shots.
Alaska slowly took over play though, and at 8:24 Tim Daly took tripping penalty that ultimately resulted in a power play goal for the Aces, putting them up 3-1 about a minute later.
Although the Grizzlies pressured towards the end of the game, with Aubin drawing two power plays with 5:53 and 3:35 to go respectively, and Bradford and Daly producing a few chances, they were unable to capitalize.
Colin Martin and Ryan Trenz both went off for roughing after a tussle around Carr’s net, and Martin Nemcik took a penalty while making a desperate play to break up an Alaska rush, and the game ended on a Grizzlies’penalty kill.
It wasn’t the best or most consistent of the Grizzlies’ games lately, but they still had good stretches, just about keeping pace, shot for shot, with Alaska throughout. Faragher especially was sharp, and despite a few lapses, the team’s defensive play was far more cohesive than it was earlier in the year.
“I thought we had our spurts, where we played well in the offensive zone” said Tim Branham after the game. “They had a lot of the puck bounces go their way, which led to puck possession, a lot of the plays up the wall ended up on their tape, our plays up the wall ended up on their tape, they worked hard. They’re a fast team, they work hard, their goaltender made some phenomenal saves – so did ours. Both goalies played tremendous. We just gotta make sure we rest tonight, and come back ready to play tomorrow.”
“I think we’ve come a long way in that regard, that’s for sure” he added, when asked about the team’s defence. “We’ve made some changes, we’ve learned, grown, we realize how important it is to defend. In this game, it’s not complicated. It’s a simple game. When you say defend, all defence is is hard work, so we know that, and when we don’t have the puck, you have to work as hard as you can to get it back. When you do have the puck, you have to make good plays, and be smart and support each other, and we understand that. This was just a little set back. They’re a good team, that was a playoff game, and we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
The teams return for round two on a snowy Saturday evening, two even more valuable points on the line.