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