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.”