If there was ever a non-playoff series that was a must win, it is this one. Alaska holds the last playoff spot, and is the only team currently in a playoff spot within striking distance. Now they’re in town for three straight games.
With Anaheim trading Kenton Helgesen, Tim Daly’s return to the lineup couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The game also marked Marc-André Lévesque’s first home game as a member of the Grizzlies, and the return of Brad Navin as both players were in the starting lineup against their former teams.
The early going favored Alaska, but a couple of saves by Ryan Faragher allowed Utah to get their legs going.
Jon Puskar drew a tripping penalty at 4:49, and Ralph Cuddemi made it 1-0 exactly five minutes into the first period, with his team-leading 26th of the season. Carlos Amestoy and Lévesque drew the assists, giving Lévesque five points in four games with Utah. Scarcely had play resumed than Navin took down Martin Nemcik at the Grizzlies’ blue line, and Utah went right back to the power play. The power play got some looks, but Navin returned to the ice with no change in score.
Alaska got most of the looks following the power play, as Utah struggled to handle the puck cleanly. With 6:13 left in the first, the Aces capitalized on the issue, tying it up as the Grizzlies got tangled up in front of the net.
Daly took a penalty with 3:14 left in the period, and the Aces took the lead thirty seconds later. Utah pressed hard through the final minutes of the frame, but after 20, they trailed 2-1, and were being outshot to the tune of 12-4.
Just seconds into the second period, C.J. Eick got in on a breakaway, but lost his footing and both he and Kevin Carr ended up in the back of the net, which came off it’s moorings.
The Grizzlies really hustled after that, and Cuddemi got another breakaway for Utah, but was also shut down by Carr.
Unfortunately for Utah, despite gaining ground in shots, and looking better through the early going, Brad Navin made it 3-1 14:21 into the period.
The Grizzlies kept pressing, and the defense made some really great plays to keep the puck away from Faragher, but they remained unable to solve Carr, despite some solid chances.
As the period progressed, it seemed increasingly clear that Utah had all the right ideas with their passes and plays, but seemed unable to execute properly, leading to a number of turnovers and tense moments.
Michael Pelech took a high-sticking call with 8:17 left in the second, and the Grizzlies’penalty kill did a terrific job, but no sooner did they return to full strength than they took a bench minor for too many men. The penalty kill proved to be rock solid, and Puskar drew a roughing call.
This time, when the Utah looked to kick the comeback into gear, it roared to life. Zac Larraza made it 3-2 on a seeing-eye shot that beat Carr with 3:03 left to go, giving the Grizzlies their second power play goal. Lévesque and Amestoy picked up the assists, giving them both multiple point games.
After 40, Utah had closed the gap in both shots (20-19 Alaska), and in score, and finished frame looking much better than they had all game.
Just 1:21 into the third, Erik Higby made it 3-3 from Mathieu Aubin and Erik Bradford, who now has six points in the last four games. Higby’s goal was his eighth point in ten games since his return from injury, and his fourth goal since moving to defence.
Just moments later, Larraza was taken down at the offensive zone blue line, and Utah went to their fourth power play of the night. Mathieu Aubin scored his 14th of the year on a nice shot below the hash marks to give the Grizzlies the 4-3 lead at 3:10. Pelech and Bradford got the assists, giving Bradford, Amestoy and Larraza all multi-point nights.
Faragher, in his turn, was spectacular when needed and the Grizzlies kept skating hard. All through the middle of the period, Utah continued to play well, whatever cobwebs they’d struggled with in the first entirely blown away.
With five minutes left in the game, the score remained 4-3, thanks in large part to Faragher.
Alaska took their time out and pulled their goalie with 1:31 to go, but Pelech took the puck at center ice, and scored into the empty net to give them the two goal lead with 1:10 to go.
Faragher made one last save for good measure, and the Grizzlies took a huge two points.
Aubin, Amestoy, and Lévesque were named the three stars of the game, each with multiple points.
When asked after the game what allowed the Grizzlies to hang on and come back with four unanswered goals Aubin said, “I think sticking together. We knew we had a bad start, not the start we wanted, in that huge game. After the first period, we just talked to each other, had a boost of energy, and then started playing the way we can, and it paid off at the end.”
“I think Tim (Branham) switched it up a bit,” said Aubin of Utah’s lethal power play, and his game winning goal. “Got us in a new power play tonight, put us at a spot where we’re comfortable, me and Pelly and Bradford, and Pelech just gave me an awesome pass. I just had to put it in, it was great.”
“It’s huge” he added, of Daly’s return. “He was our biggest weapon back there. He’s obviously getting back in shape here, he hasn’t played in a while, but he played a great game, and every game is gonna get better so it’s huge for us.”
“Obviously we know we need to win all those three games, we’re taking one game at a time, but for us, what we need is six points, and we’re not going to be happy if we don’t get that.”
Head Coach Tim Branham expressed similar sentiments.
“I wish we’d stop doing that. Give me a heart attack on the bench!” He began, to general chuckles, when asked about the Grizzlies’ continued ability to go down a few goals, and then come roaring back.
“The first period we just didn’t work for it, and we were down 2-1 for a reason. They out-shot us, they out-played us, they beat us to all the puck battles, and then as the second period rolled on, we gradually started to take over, and the second half of that second period was good. Obviously, our power play was really good tonight. Once we kind of got in a rhythm, once we kind of understood that hey if we work hard, do the right things, the things that we’ve talked about, we’re gonna have success. Don’t sit back. Don’t wait for the guy next to you to do it. Take it upon yourself to play your game, and once we start doing that, good things happen.”
With so much at stake in the next month and a half, Daly’s return couldn’t come at a better moment. “It’s very good to have Tim back. You look at him, he’s got a great stick, he makes plays, he has his head up. He’s so poised with the puck. You can tell he’s still ginger out there with his shoulder. He played over 30 minutes a night for us before he got injured, and in every situation, so he’s a huge part of this team, so it’s great to have him back.”
“Now we’re four points back with two games, so it’s huge. We did a good job up in Alaska, we’ve got to make sure we take care of business here at home. No matter what happens this weekend, it’s still not over. There’s a lot of hockey to be played, and we’ve gotta make sure we take it, like you said, one game at a time, and that’s all you can do. It’s one shift at a time, make sure you give all that one shift and play the right way. If we do that, we’re going to be just fine. We hold our destinies in our own hands. All we have to do is win games. We just gotta take it one at a time.”
Puck drop for game two against Alaska is tonight at 7PM at the Mav.