With a chance to clinch the final playoff spot, the Grizzlies opened their final Friday night game of the regular season with Kevin Boyle making his fifth straight start of the season. Rob Mann made his Grizzlies debut, while Travis Howe, Cam Reid, and Erik Higby all sat out.
Unfortunately Utah came out flat, giving up two goals to Dane Fox and Eric Scheid in the first 5:39.
After giving up two quick goals, the Grizzlies stepped up their game, more or less taking over the game, and keeping possession of the puck, and the shot lead.
With about 7:20 to go, Gabriel Verpaelst rang the crossbar, as Utah did a good job of creating some second and third chances around the net.
Jon Puskar and Zach Tokinen threw down at 14:08 after a battle in the offensive zone. It wasn’t so much a fight as a brief tussle with Puskar getting the take-down, to the great delight of the 6,702 fans in attendance. Verpaelst and Jacob Doty tangled briefly on the same whistle, but only Puskar and Tokinen were sent to the box to cool their tempers.
Dane Fox was whistled for slashing shortly thereafter, and tried to goad Colin Martin into taking a retaliatory penalty, without luck, and earned himself an extra ten minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Grizzlies weren’t able to capitalise on the power play, and despite working up to a 12-7 shot advantage, they remained behind 2-0.
After 20, the shots were 14-7 for the Grizzlies, but that slow start continued to haunt them.
There was nothing slow about the start of the second, as Mathieu Aubin cut the deficit in half just 40 seconds into the period. Austen Brassard and Michael Pelech got the assists on Aubin’s 18th of the year.
By the five minute mark, Utah had outshot Missouri 20-10 and continued to largely control the game. They got a few gorgeous chances, including a pair of hard shots from Verpaelst, and one from Zac Larraza on a beautiful Erik Bradford pass. Sadly, Zach Nagelvoort continued to be terrific, and kept the puck out.
Puskar took a slashing call with 5:57 to go, but the Grizzlies absolutely took over what was supposed to be a Missouri power play. Larraza sprang Bradford on a glorious breakaway, Larraza went after a rebound, Cuddemi got a chance, Boyle made some terrific saves, and the penalty kill was over.
Utah found another gear in the final five minutes, and with just eleven seconds to go, Brassard tied the game. Aubin and Pelech got the assists, and the roof all but came off the Mav.
The Grizzlies went into the final intermission tied 2-2, and outshooting the Mav 36-18 after opening and closing the period with a goal.
Josh Robinson came in for the Mavericks to start the third, and continued to thwart some beautiful Grizzlies’ chances from the likes of Brassard, Puskar, and Bradford.
With 7:38 Missouri scored on a weird bounce, while Martin went rib first into the goal post. He went to the locker room and did not return to the game.
The Grizzlies made a determined effort to tie up the game getting 45 shots to Missouri’s 23 with 5:22 left.
With just under two minutes to go, Branham pulled Boyle, and Utah made one last ditch attempt to tie the game, to no avail.
Brassard and Aubin were named the second and third stars of the game with a goal and an assist each, while Pelech picked up his fourth multi-point night in the last eight games.
It was a disappointing outcome, especially given how well the Grizzlies played after the opening five minutes, with the chance to clinch a playoff spot on their own power.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” Brassard said after the game. “That slow start kind of woke us up, but at that point you’re already down two, and you’ve gotta climb back, and you’re in tough. It’s pretty disappointing, but it’s done now we’ve gotta move past it. We’ve got an opportunity tomorrow to get the job done, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Tim Branham had a similar view of the game. “Definitely pretty disappointed in our effort, coming out there, top to bottom, goaltender on out, didn’t come ready to play,” he said. “You can’t play like that, and we dug ourselves a two goal deficit. Yeah we got 53 shots, that’s not good enough against this Missouri team. We should have 60-70 shots if we play the right way. Yes we had plenty of scoring chances, but they were one-on-one scoring chances with the goaltender. He saw every puck. Not sure if we had any second chance opportunities. We’ve got to be hungry in that two foot area, the blue paint in front of their goaltender, and if we’re not, they’re going to continue to stop 40 or 50 shots a night.”
“It’s just a matter of how bad do we want it,” he continued, referring to the Grizzlies’ playoff aspirations. “I don’t want to leave it to chance here, Idaho wins and we get in by default. I don’t like that. My main focus is the boys come in ready to play tomorrow, showing what we’re made of with a consistent sixty minute effort.”
Idaho did end up securing the win over Alaska 1-0 in regulation, ensuring the Grizzlies’ tenth straight post season appearance.
Winning Saturday night’s game is now a matter of pride.