Utah Grizzlies: Heart and Soul

The Grizzlies continued their five game road trip with their first of three games against the Rapid City Rush. Garrett Haar made his first start against one of his former teams, and Jon Puskar returned to the lineup for the first time since his injury. Kevin Boyle started in nets after returning from the AHL with a 10-5-4-1 record, and Ralph Cuddemi sat out for his second of a four game suspension.

With both Alaska and Missouri in action, and all three teams within three points of each other, there was a lot riding on this game.

Rapid City came out flying, but it would be Puskar who scored on his first shift and the Grizzlies’ first shot of the game. Because of course he did.

Unfortunately, after that, things fell apart a little for Utah. Erik Bradford took a hooking penalty, and Rapid City scored, as the puck bounced off the glass and straight onto the waiting stick of Mike Monfredo. Just 27 seconds later, Ryan Misiak made it 2-1 on a defensive breakdown off the faceoff.

Utah got a few chances, including a good one by Zac Larraza from Phil Pietroniro, but after 20, the Grizzlies had been out shot 15-8, and trailed 2-1.

The second period began in much the same fashion as the first, as the Rush jumped out of the gate first, before relinquishing a goal. Zac Larraza continued to be white hot for Utah, making it 2-2 at 1:10 from Bradford.

Utah kept their foot on the pedal after that, and Puskar nearly tipped in what began as a Pietroniro point shot, before getting a second chance, and then finally his second goal of the game at 6:32.

With 10:54 to go, Larraza got a gorgeous breakaway and was pulled off the play. He was awarded a penalty shot with a chance for his second of the game and a 4-1 lead, but unfortunately he missed the net.

Michael Pelech took a hooking call with 10:17 left in the frame, but the Grizzlies killed the penalty off, even getting a few chances of their own from Larraza and Austen Brassard.

There was a tense moment when Erik Higby went down in the offensive zone, but though he appeared to be in some discomfort when he went off, he returned to the game not long afterward.

Utah continued to press, getting terrific shifts from the Pelech and Puskar lines, and after 40, shots were a far closer 24-23, while Utah held onto the 3-2 lead.

Boyle came up huge just seconds into the third to preserve the advantage, and Pietroniro dropped the gloves with Terrence Wallin at 2:35. The Grizzlies got some really good chances on the ensuing 4-on-4, controlling play through out most of the matching majors.

At 10:38, Marc-André Lévesque led the charge on the Rush net, and Colin Martin collared the eventual rebound for a big insurance goal.

The Grizzlies continued to play well through the second half of the third, surpassing Rapid City in shots, and with 2:12 to go, the Rush pulled their goalie.

Gabriel Verpaelst drew a crosschecking call in front of Boyle with 1:28 to play, and Utah got their first power play to close off the game. Rapid City pulled their goalie again to even it out, but Utah held on to win 4-2.

Puskar was, without a doubt, the first star of the game, picking up his 20th and 21st goals of the season,  while Boyle saw his ECHL season high 39 shots, and turned aside 37 of them for second star. Larraza continued to roll, collecting yet another multiple point game with a goal and an assist, earning third star honors.

The Grizzlies goalscorers have heated up at just the right time, given both the playoff race and the lack of Cuddemi. Puskar and Martin now both have 21 goals on the year, giving Utah three 20+ goal scorers, while Bradford continues to be the points leader picking up his 55th point in 52 games with the Grizzlies. Larraza put up his second multi-point game in a row, and has 12 points in 10 games played this season, while C.J. Eick has points in three of the last four games.

There was good news on the playoff front as well.

Fort Wayne coasted to a 5-2 win over Alaska, while Allen routed Missouri 7-2 in Allen, so as it currently stands, Utah leapfrogs Missouri to draw within one point of Alaska and the final playoff spot. Missouri still has a game in hand on both Alaska and Utah, and plays that game on Thursday.

The Grizzlies are next in action against the Rush on Friday at 7 PM.

 

 

 

Image courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies

 

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Utah Grizzlies: Ex-Zac-tly what the Doctor Ordered

With Jon Puskar and Cam Reid out with injuries, Ralph Cuddemi suspended, and Tim Daly up in the AHL, the Grizzlies came into tonight’s game with nine forwards and five defensemen – a situation they had not found themselves in since the infamous game against Alaska in February. When asked what it would take to replicate a win, Tim Branham answered, “heart.” Fortunately, that’s something the Grizzlies have in spades.

The game started much more tentatively for the Grizzlies than Friday’s contest, but Faragher made some terrific saves to keep the game 0-0 as Colorado got the first six shots of the night.

Utah took the first penalty when Michael Pelech took a roughing call with 11:39 to go. They were able to kill off the disadvantage, thanks to an excellent penalty kill, and to a terrific save or two from Faragher.

After that, the Grizzlies improved, getting some chances of their own, and doing a much better job of keeping Colorado in check.

Mathieu Aubin made it 1-0 at 15:13 as Pelech, Aubin, and Zac Larraza capped off a strong offensive zone shift.

Unfortunately with 20 seconds to go in the period, Luke Salazar made it 1-1, and after 20, the shots were 15-7 for the Eagles.

Erik Bradford drew a power play at 2:19, and Larraza scored on an absolutely gorgeous snipe just over a minute later.

Utah continued to largely control play through the middle of the frame, but Pelech took a slashing call with 8:29 to go, and Colorado went to the man advantage. However, the Grizzlies got short handed chances from Higby and Bradford, and killed off the penalty.

Utah got a power play of their own at 14:18, but though they got a few looks, they spent most of the man advantage chasing the puck back to their own end. They got a second chance on the power play with 2:42 left as Colin Martin drew a hooking call, and then made Colorado pay, scoring his 20th of the year with assists from Bradford and Larraza.

There were some extracurriculars as the buzzer sounded, and Utah headed to the locker room up 3-1, having closed the shot gap to 24-22.

The Grizzlies began the third well, keeping Colorado shotless for the first three minutes or so, Garrett Haar drawing a hooking call at 3:25. Utah was unable to capitalize, but Bradford’s speed drew another power play with 13:43 to go, but were unable to make it 4-1. However, they also did not allow any dangerous short handed chances, which after their previous struggles, was certainly a good thing.

In the end, it didn’t matter, as Larraza made it 4-1 at 9:48 with assists from Bradford and Gabriel Verpaelst.

The Eagles pressed hard with just about five minutes to play, but Faragher and the Grizzlies stood their ground. Phil Pietroniro and Jackson Hauk took matching roughing penalties with 5:05 to go, and Nemcik followed soon after, putting the Grizzlies on a 4-on-3 penalty kill for a minute, and the Eagles pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. the Eagles scored shortly afterward, but the goal was scored on a high-stick and immediately called back.

Colorado pulled their goalie once more with 1:54 to go, but the Grizzlies held on to win 4-1, and closed out the season series against one of the best teams in the league on a high note.

Larraza had a breakout night, and had a hand in every single Utah goal, picking up assists on the goals by Aubin and Martin. He also picked up two goals of his own, and was named first star. Bradford and Larraza continued right where they’d left off on Friday night, and Bradford had a multi-point game of his own with two assists, earning second star of the game. Faragher was also incredible, making 41 of 42 saves, and holding the fort early before the Grizzlies really got going, and was named the third star.

With Missouri wining against Wichita, and Alaska losing to Rapid City, the race for the final playoff position has become incredibly close. The Mavericks and Aces both have a game in hand, and are tied with 70 points, while Utah trails them by just one.

The Grizzlies continue their road trip in Rapid City, where they will play Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday before returning home for a final, all important home stand against the Mavericks.

Utah Grizzlies: A Taste of Redemption

With eight games to go in the season, Utah looks to continue their tradition of closing out the year on the high note. Branham elected to start Rob Nichols, signed out of the University of Connecticut in his pro debut, while Erik Higby returned to defense with Daly in the AHL.

Both teams got chances early, while Nichols held the fort. The top line of Zac Larraza-Erik Bradford-Ralph Cuddemi looked terrific in the opening five minutes, as the Grizzlies picked up seven of the first eleven shots of the game.

Utah drew the first penalty as Teigan Zahn went to the box for roughing at 9:31, and then just moments later, Gabriel Verpaelst was taken down in the offensive zone, and Cam Maclise went to the box for high-sticking. Higby made it 1-o after a nice shift for Utah, while Garrett Haar and Larraza got the assists.

The rest of their power play looked much improved, getting a few more chances before the Eagles returned to full strength.

The Grizzlies continued to play well, though they did occasionally get caught in their own zone, where they did a good job of helping out their rookie goalie.

With 3:07 to go, Austen Brassard continued his strong play, scoring on a tight angle shot, with assists from Michael Pelech, and Mathieu Aubin, and Haar drew a penalty in the final seconds of the period.

At the end of 20, Utah led 2-0, and outshot Colorado 10-8.

Utah opened the second period with 1:41 left in their power play, but while they got a few shots, so did Colorado, and the Eagles returned to full strength.

C.J. Eick took the Grizzlies’ first penalty of the game, a holding call after he got tangled up with Sean Zimmerman in the offensive zone, but Utah had no trouble keeping the Eagles chasing the puck out o the zone. Aubin took a goaltender interference and Bradford made it 3-0 on a gorgeous short-handed rush.

Unfortunately, Phil Pietroniro took a delay of game penalty just seconds after that, and the Eagles made it 3-1 on a tick-tack-toe play. They scored yet again just moments after that on the 5-on-4 to make it 3-2, and all the momentum the Grizzlies had built up was gone.

Matt Register took a slashing penalty on Nichols, who had to leave the game as a result. Ryan Faragher took over in nets, and the Grizzlies went on the power play. They were unable to convert, and Pietroniro and Harrison took matching minors at 16:02.

The game got a bit out of control as Cuddemi boarded Zahn, and then Jackson Hauk jumped Cuddemi. Brassard, Verpaelst, and Michael Sdao all got involved, and once the dust settled, Cuddemi was given five minutes for boarding, and a misconduct, while Hauk, Sdao, and Verpaelst got two each for roughing.

At the end of 40, Utah maintained the 3-2 lead, but were outshot 24-17, and staring down a three minute penalty kill, and without Cuddemi.

The Grizzlies killed off the three minute Cuddemi major, and Bradford nearly got a second short-handed breakaway, but was not quite able to elevate the puck over Kent Simpson’s pads.

Eick made it 4-2 at 5:32 with assists from Higby and Travis Howe, giving Higby his second point of the game, and Howe his fourth point of the year.

Faragher made some big saves to preserve the two goal lead, and Brassard scored his second of the night into the empty net to give the Grizzlies the 5-2 win.

Haar once again had a great game, as did Brassard, who now has nine points in the last ten games. It was also an encouraging outing, as the entire team looked better than they have at any point in the Colorado series for a complete sixty minutes. Now, if they can keep that momentum rolling, they should do pretty well.

Unfortunately, it has since been announced that Cuddemi has been suspended indefinitely for his hit on Zahn (who has since been placed on reserve), and Nichols has been released to return to UConn to finish school after being injured – though he returns having won his first professional game. So not only will Utah have to fight for their playoff spot without arguably their best defenseman in Daly, but without their leading goalscorer as well.

There is some good news though. With Alaska’s loss to to Rapid City, and Missouri’s win, Utah remains one behind Missouri, but only three behind Alaska for the final playoff spot.

Utah will need to dig in and overcome adversity to finish the season in a playoff spot, but they are no strangers to adversity this year, and have proved on several occasions that giving up on the Grizzlies is unwise.

After all, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Utah Grizzlies: Death by Special Teams II

The Grizzlies got off to a very good start in their final home game against Colorado on Monday night, as Cam Reid opened the scoring at 1:42 with assists from C.J. Eick and Phil Pietroniro. Unfortunately, however, the advantage they’d established evaporated as they ran into some penalty trouble.

Martin Nemcik took a holding call at 7:08, but Garrett Haar’s hard work behind the Grizzlies’ net drew a penalty and evened out the play. However about four minutes later, Michael Sdao was tripped up and flew into Faragher. Faragher wasn’t entertained, and laid into him, which resulted in two Utah penalties, one to Nemcik for hooking, and one to Faragher for roughing. Matt Register got off three big shots from the point on the five-on-three before the next one finally beat Faragher to tie the game.

Erik Higby took a double minor for high-sticking at 13:09, and Register scored yet again on the 5-on-3. The Grizzlies were able to kill off the remainder of the penalty, thanks in large part to Haar’s excellent play, and Colorado took a penalty of their own with 22 seconds left in the period.

After 20 minutes, the game was tied 1-1, and Utah outshot them 11-9.

The Grizzlies got off to another great start in the second, as Michael Pelech made it 2-1 24 seconds into the frame with assists from Marc-André Lévesque and Mathieu Aubin.

Austen Brassard got a beautiful breakaway all alone from off the bench, but was tied up, and no call was made. Faragher and Haar continued to impress, Faragher made some terrific saves, and Haar also had a nice scoring chance. Register took a slashing penalty with 13:18 to go. Utah was unable to generate anything on the man advantage, and Faragher had to make an incredible pair of saves as the Eagles pounced on some egregious turn overs.

 

However, just when it looked like Colorado was prepared to take the bit in their mouth and run off with the game, Pelech scored his second of the period from Tim Daly. Haar got the secondary assist, his first for Utah, and a nice touch to a great game.

Pelech took a tripping call with 4:34 to go, but C.J. Eick, who had looked terrific so far, got a glorious short-handed breakaway, but unfortunately his shot went wide. However, they killed off the remainder of the penalty, and at the end of 40, Utah led 3-2, and the shots were tied 22-22.

The third period did not get off to an altogether auspicious start, as the Eagles kept the Grizzlies playing in their own end, and Utah iced the puck. However, they averted danger, and Daly drew a tripping penalty behind the Utah net.

The Grizzlies struggles on the power play continued against the Eagles, however, as Darryl Bootland made it 3-3 with 1:03 to go on the Utah man advantage.

The special teams issues continued for the Grizzlies, as they took a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct at 9:51, and despite two terrific saves from Faragher, the puck continued to pinball, and Jackson Houck made it 4-3 about a minute later.

Faragher and Haar continued to have strong games, Faragher turned aside a breakaway, and shortly thereafter, Haar made a perfect sliding play to prevent a shot on the 2-on-1.

Utah tried to make a game of it, but despite a power play in the final two minutes of the game, and pulling Faragher for the extra attacker, Colorado scored a short handed empty netter for the dagger with 37 seconds to go.

When the buzzer sounded, the Grizzlies found themselves the losers of three straight, outshot 33-31. They definitely did not play badly, but special teams cost them. Every single one of Colorado’s goals was scored either on the power play, or the penalty kill, and the Grizzlies’ power play – though they did score one on the man advantage – really hurt them as the Eagles’ penalty kill jumped on any mistake or hesitation.

“I thought we definitely played well enough to win.” Said Branham after the game, “Special teams was a huge part of the last two games, and they’re pretty good on special teams, so we’ve got to make sure we tighten up in that area.”

“We’ve got to play that same way. Be a little more disciplined, stay out of the penalty box a little bit. I didn’t think some of those penalties were warranted. I thought we were on the wrong end of quite a few of them, to be honest, but that’s the way it goes, and you’ve got to battle through it.”

He had good things to say of Eick and Haar as well:

“[Eick’s] full of energy. He’s a guy that works hard each and every shift, and his speed is tough to defend, so we like getting him out there on the open ice, he brings it every game. It’s great for a coach when you know what you’re going to get out of a player every night. You definitely know what you’re going to get out of him each and every night.”

He added that he thought the contest was the second in which Haar was theGrizzlies best defenseman.

With their loss, they find themselves one point behind Missouri, and five behind Alaska. They’ve got eight games left, so the playoffs are certainly not out of the question, but (as they have all year) they face a very stiff uphill battle.

Then again, it remains unwise to count them out entirely.

They play tonight in Colorado, where they hope to return to their early season success against the Eagles.

 

Utah Grizzlies: Hard Fought

After last night’s game, the Grizzlies looked to rebound without Jon Puskar. Troy Redmann drew in for his first start in seven games, while Garrett Haar made his home debut for the team.

Colorado jumped out to a 3-0 shot lead in the first four or so minutes of the period, but Redmann looked exceptionally sharp, and the Grizzlies managed to stay out of trouble.

Martin Nemcik took a high-sticking, and the penalty kill was very short lived as Cam Maclise opened the scoring to put Colorado up 1-0 at 5:27.

The Grizzlies came back with a vengeance though, and Austen Brassard had a monster shift that he capped off with an assist. Michael Pelech got the goal, and Phil Pietroniro drew the secondary assist.

The Eagles got some chances of their own afterwards, but Redmann shut the door with a couple of very nice saves.

Travis Howe came in like a wrecking ball shortly thereafter, leveling Darryl Bootland and Sean Zimmerman on one shift, to the great delight of the 6,222 fans in attendance.

Utah drew a power play of their own at 15:03, and though they only got one shot, they played well, holding the zone for the majority of the man advantage.

At the end of 20, Colorado held an 18-5 shot advantage, but the game was tied at one a piece. Predictably, a crowd gathered as the teams separated at the buzzer, and Howe had to be restrained from further taunting of the Eagles’ bench.

The second period began on the remainder of the Grizzlies’ power play, which went about as well as their power plays have gone against Colorado, and Redmann made a stellar shorthanded save. He followed that up with another spectacular save on a Jackson Houck breakaway, but Colorado made it 2-1 shortly thereafter on a rebound.

Things got pretty scrappy after that, as Colin Martin took an elbowing call, and on the same whistle, Zimmerman and Martin Nemcik both got five for fighting. Nemcik won emphatically, and Zimmerman got an extra two for instigation. Nemcik may not have started the fight, but boy did he ever finish it. The Grizzlies were buzzing after that, and when any shots got through, Redmann was well up to the task.

At 13:10 Haar drew an interference call, and the Grizzlies went to the power play. Colorado got yet another short-handed chance, and this time Teigan Zahn buried the puck to put the Eagles up 3-1.

Despite that, Redmann continued to play well, charging out to break up a 1-on-0, and then following that up with another save for good measure.

The Grizzlies took off after that, thanks in part to a phenomenal shift from Howe, and after 40, though still trailing 3-1, the feeling in the crowd was far more positive than it had been the night before.

Utah controlled the play early, skating hard, and getting a glorious chance when a trailing Verpaelst hammered the puck just wide of the net. Haar also had what was perhaps his best look of the night on a big shot from the point.

With 8:27 to go Zahn and Brassard got tied up in a furious shoving match in front of the Eagles’ net, and when the whistle blew, they dropped the gloves. Both got five for fighting, and the crowd was elated.

Unfortunately, despite a valiant effort from the Grizzlies in the final minutes, Colorado scored into the empty net after a lengthy stretch of Utah possession.

“I thought we did a lot of good things,” Head Coach Tim Branham said, when asked about the team’s performance. “We certainly had enough shots to put more than one goal by them, but we couldn’t do that once again tonight. At the end of the day, they worked just a little bit harder than us. We had a good work ethic, for us. Colorado forwards, they work even harder. If you want to have success against them, you need to outwork their forwards, because their forwards are the hardest workers with and without the puck. They shut a lot of things down through the neutral zone. That’s the key to their success, and you’ve got to make sure that you can slow them down, but also transition fast before they can get back. We had a lot of chances, we just can’t put the puck in.”

When asked about the team’s struggles to get shots on net in first periods against the Eagles lately, he answered, “I think it’s just everyone needing to bear down and be ready to play. I thought, still, we had some good opportunities, we just didn’t get shots on them, whether they missed the net, or whatever, we still had some good opportunities. But Colorado had 18 shots. I thought Troy was really good in that first period. He actually did a good job controlling rebounds and killing plays, looked real poised in that first period. He did a good job.”

Utah wore beautiful specialty jerseys for Military Appreciation night, which were auctioned off after the game. C.J. Eick’s jersey went for a sale topping $3,125, and the Grizzlies raised over $22,000 for the Salt Lake City Fisher House!

 

The Grizzlies get one more crack at the Eagles at home on Monday night, before heading out to Colorado for two games, and they’ll need to rediscover their scoring touch if they’re to have any chance at running down the Aces for the final playoff spot.

 

Image courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies