Wednesday’s tilt against the Wichita Thunder saw the return of Austen Brassard, who played 20 games with the Ducks’ AHL team after eight games with the Grizzlies at the beginning of the year.
The Grizzlies and the Thunder traded chances through the opening five minutes or so, with Wichita holding a slight advantage until Taylor Richart was high-sticked behind the Grizzlies’ net. Utah got a four minute power play as a result at 6:48. The first half passed with Utah chasing the puck, several times back into their own zone, but they did eventually get themselves sorted out. Erik Bradford, Cam Reid, and Ralph Cuddemi camped out in the offensive zone, and while Bradford was unable to beat Kent Patterson on two half-wall passes from Reid, the line kept possession, and Cuddemi buried the puck.
After that, the teams traded a series of penalties, and the Grizzlies survived a rocky stretch of play around their own net, but between some good shot blocking, wild bounces, missed shots, and the phenomenal play of Faragher, the puck remained out. Utah pressured at the end of the period, but were unable to add to their one goal lead.
The beginning of the second went well for the Grizzlies, as they picked up a few more shots. However, on the very next rush down the ice, Wichita came back, and Blake Tatchell beat Faragher with an unfortunately beautiful wrist shot.
The Grizzlies didn’t ease off, and – as they so often do – C.J. Eick and Jon Puskar, together with Travis Howe got the Grizzlies going.
With 14:45 left to play, Howe made the second of several really nice plays to set up Navin, but the score remained 1-1.
Phil Pietroniro got called for interference a little past the five minute mark, and the Grizzlies’ penalty kill got to work. It remained strong, as it has of late, and Utah spent at least as much time in the offensive zone as they did in their own end. With seconds left in the penalty, Brad Navin blocked a shot, and then took off down the ice, getting a nice chance on Patterson, who shut the door.
Pietroniro also had a chance seconds after exiting the box, but for the time being, the Grizzlies remained unable to solve Patterson.
Brassard, Puskar, and Navin, had a strong shift in the offensive zone, and at 9:53 Evan Stoflet’s shot from the slot trickled through Pattersen on Puskar’s tip. Stoflet and Brassard both picked up the assists
On the very next shift Michael Pelech put the puck off the back of Patterson and into the net to give the Grizlies a 3-1 lead.
Pietroniro dropped the gloves with Wichita’s captain Ian Lowe at 12:35 for his second fight in as many games, and his third in six, and both were sent to the box.
Mere moments later, Cuddemi put Utah up 4-1 as the puck also slipped through Patterson’s pads thanks to an unforced error by a Wichita defenseman.
After allowing three goals in such rapid succession, Patterson was yanked in favour of Drew Owsley.
Puskar took a holding penalty, at 14:14, joining Pietroniro in the box, but Utah put on a clinic on penalty killing, keeping Wichita on the outside, and chasing the puck down the ice.
No sooner had Puskar exited the box, than he was high-sticked by Vincent Arseneau, and the Grizzlies got a power play of their own. Despite a strong power play, however, they were unable to pick up another goal, and with 58.8 seconds Brandon Carlson cut the lead in half.
Puskar didn’t think much of that though, responding with his second of the game ten seconds later, this time from Brassard and Colin Martin. Puskar’s 15th of the year sent Utah to the dressing room up 5-2, outshooting the Thunder 26-11.
Despite their lead, Utah never sat back, buzzing around Wichita’s net for large stretches of the early third, with both Puskar and Cuddemi looking to complete the hat trick.
With 10:35 left in the game Owsley absolutely robed Travis Howe point blank as Utah continued pressing. Likewise, every time the Thunder ventured into the Grizzlies end, they were met by the spectacular play of Faragher, and Grizzlies’ defensemen.
Puskar became the second player this season to complete a hat trick a with 4:44 left to play as he tipped Tim Daly’s shot past Owsley.
Faragher made a huge save with 3:56 left in the period, and another one with 3:09 to go.
Pietroniro drew a high-sticking call with 1:59 left to play, and Utah finished the game on the man advantage. That was not the end of the excitement though. Seconds from the end of the game, Arseneau sucker punched Travis Howe, and Howe was sent off to the dressing room early with a ten minute misconduct.
At the final buzzer, the Grizzlies were the 6-2 victors, having outshot Wichita 38-20.
The Grizzlies are now an astounding 19-1-3-1 when either Cuddemi or Puskar score.
“It feels great” said Puskar of his hat trick. It’s something I’ve never done in my pro career, and it’s exciting for that to happen.” Just as a few games ago, he was quick to credit the hard work of his linemates:”In this one again, two tips, and open net on an unbelievable play, that’s my teammates.”
The praise didn’t stop with his linemates. “That was a huge guy to have come back.” he said when asked about Brassard’s return to the lineup. “That kid can play some great hockey. He works every time he comes to the rink. And with energy like that, skill like he’s got, you just build off him. When you’ve got guys that good, you want to be up there at his level when he’s playing at that elite level – and a lot of guys are like that on this team – you want to build off those guys, that’s where we’re getting it from.”
Branham’s comments on Brassard’s return were along the same vein: “He started the season really well for us, he deserved a call up, he deserves to play in the American league, that’s for sure.”
With Brassard now in the lineup as well, the Grizzlies have added another weapon to their considerable arsenal, and despite the scoring coming largely from Puskar and Cuddemi on Wednesday, the entire team continues to roll along as a very impressive unit.
“We’ve got a lot of talent up front. Lot of good players up there,” Branham said. “I’m lucky behind the bench there. I can’t really go wrong putting anybody on the ice. That’s a good feeling to have, it’s a lot like our team last year. Our boys are playing great, they’re playing with a lot of confidence, they’re sticking to the system, they’re working hard. That’s the biggest thing. We didn’t let up all game. I thought maybe the last half of the first period we were a little slow, but other than that, I thought we played a really solid game, and we need that. We’ve dug ourselves a huge hole there in November, so we’ve got to slowly climb our way back out.”
The Grizzlies will hope to keep stringing wins together on Friday and Saturday where they will finish the homestand against Danick Paquette and the Tulsa Oilers.
Photo courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies