Saturday night’s game was likely the last to ever be played between the Alaska Aces and the Utah Grizzlies, and it did not disappoint.
Ryan Faragher got the start for the third straight game, and the only roster change saw Sean Robertson draw in in place of Zac Larraza.
Utah came out flying in the opening minutes of the period, and Jon Puskar scored his 19th of the year at 3:37, making it 1-0 on a beautiful shot. Ralph Cuddemi drew the only assist.
About a minute later, Phil Pietroniro put the puck over the glass, and was sent to the box for delay of game. There were some tense moments to follow, as C.J. Eick joined him shortly after for interference, drawing a crowd of ticked off Aces players. Between some beautiful saves from Faragher, and the Grizzlies’ excellent penalty kill, however, the 5-on-3, and subsequent 5-on-4 were both killed off.
Both teams collected chances in the following few minutes, but it would be Utah who capitalized. At 10:45, The Grizzlies came flying into the Aces’ zone, and Colin Martin made it 2-0 on Pietroniro’s rebound.
Martin took a penalty at 13:02, and though Utah did an excellent job of killing it off, Alaska cut the Grizzlies lead in half mere seconds after it expired.
Both teams got good chances in the last four or so minutes, but Utah decidedly carried the play, throwing a flurry of shots on net in the last three seconds, and the period came to an end with Utah up 2-1, outshooting Alaska 9-7.
The Grizzlies continued to buzz right out of the gate in the second, as Erik Bradford rang the post mere moments into the frame.
Brad Navin took a goaltender interference penalty at 2:34, and the Grizzlies got a few chances early, but Alaska also got two breakaways. Ultimately, however, Martin made Alaska pay, scoring his second of the night at 3:49 after absolute mayhem around the net. Cam Reid and Marc-André Lévesque drew the assists, and Utah reclaimed their two goal lead.
Despite being up by two goals, the Grizzlies stayed hungry, continuing to skate hard and get chances. Alas,, that’s when the questionable penalty troubles began. Mathieu Aubin was pulled down in the defensive zone at 9:22, yet it was Pietroniro who was sent to the box for tripping.
Unfortunately, Nolan Descoteaux scored on the suspect penalty, and the game was made 3-2. Alaska put the pedal to the metal after their goal, and with 8:31 left to go, they tied it up.
The Aces continued to press, but Faragher made a pair of big saves, and the momentum slowly began to shift back in Utah’s favor.
Mitch Jones tried to goad Ralph Cuddemi into a retaliatory penalty, but with no luck after the Grizzlies continued to crash the net.
The crease crashing paid off as the Grizzlies went to the net hard, and Martin’s wrap-around slipped past Kevin Carr for the hat trick. Martin’s hat trick makes him the third Utah player this year to put up a three goal game, joining Cuddemi and Puskar. Reid picked up his third assist of the night – all three coming on Martin’s goals.
The missed calls continued to pile up, as Erik Higby was taken down with no call. A few minutes later, Brassard was sent into the back of the net at 16:45, and took justice into his own hands, dropping the gloves with Mitch Jones. Brassard won the bout emphatically, Jones got an extra two for roughing, and Utah went to the power play.
The Grizzlies’ power play generated some chances, including two from Martin, but the most dangerous attempt of the play went to Alaska who jumped on a bad line change, and got a 2-on-0 on Faragher. Faragher made a phenomenal save, and the Grizzlies went into second intermission up 4-3.
Alaska got a big scoring chance eighteen seconds into the third on their sixteenth shot of the night, but Faragher shut the door.
Puskar took a shot up high along the boards with no call with 14:31 to go, and Reid took a holding call moments afterwards. Once again, Descoeaux scored on the power play, to tie the game at 6:02.
The Grizzlies responded emphatically as Bradford, Aubin, and Michael Pelech capped off a terrific shift with a goal from the Rocket at 9:08.
Alaska countered, but the Grizzlies did a terrific job blocking out shots, and responding with offensive zone shifts of their own. With roughly five minutes to go, Alaska twice got away with blatant calls against Tim Daly, but Utah continued to battle
The Aces finally took a penalty as Stephen Perfetto all but hitched a ride on Daly through the neutral zone with 2:18 left in regulation. The power play was not so much a power play as a time killer, Utah playing keep-away in the offensive zone as much as possible.
When the final horn sounded, Utah had outshot Alaska 28-24 en route to the 5-4 victory, while Martin, Reid, and Faragher were the well-deserving three stars of the game.
“This whole series, I don’t think we put together a full 60 minutes until tonight.” Martin said after the game. “We took it to them from puck drop right to the last buzzer there. That’s what we need to do every night. It’s playoff hockey, starting now, and it’s time to go.”
Coach Branham had similar thoughts on the team’s game. “Definitely proud of the effort. I’m sure it was exciting for the fans, but we would have liked to keep the puck out of our net a few more times, but I thought we did a pretty good job. We did a good job of answering every time. Alaska did a good job of responding, and then we would respond back. It was just great. No matter what got thrown at us — we were talking on the bench — no matter what gets thrown at us, we’re not losing this game. I thought we could have had quite a few calls there at the end, that weren’t called. I don’t know what was going on there. But we did get the one at the end, and we were able to seal the deal.”
“Our destiny is in our hands” Branham continued. “We’ve gotta just win. Win games, and we’ve got a tough stretch here, but so do they. Missouri lost again tonight, so we’re two points up on them, and they make up a game in hand tomorrow, so we’ll be watching the scoreboards, but at the end of the day we’ve gotta just worry about what we gotta do, and focus on continuing to win hockey games.”
“It’s pretty crazy” Martin said, reflecting on the future of the Aces, “Every time you think about this league, one of the teams you obviously think about is the Alaska Aces. It’s sad. I feel sorry for the guys down there, but at the same time, it’s hockey. Stuff happens, and you’ve just gotta do what you can.”
As much as Martin may sympathise with their fate, he, and the Grizzlies, are focused on their own play, and the task ahead. “We’re confident. That’s what we need. We need confidence, we need guys going to the net, we need guys scoring goals, that all comes with confidence. I think we have that right now, we’ve got some swagger, and it’s time to go to Florida and get six points.”
Confidence and swagger were the watchwords of the day as Branham echoed Martin’s words:”It’s all about confidence and swagger. It’s a confident group in there, so we’ve just gotta build on that, and keep that rolling.”
With the win, Utah improves to 9-0-0-1 when they score first, and a staggering 13-1-1-2 when Puskar scores.
They’ll look to take their winning ways to Florida in the coming week, where they will face the Florida Everblades, and the Orlando Solar Bears, both of whom have been hot as of late.
Photo courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies