What a ride it’s been.
What a roller coaster of standings points and emotions, of injuries and triumphs this season has been. For every year, and every team, there’s always a narrative. Every regular season has a story. For the 2016-17 Utah Grizzlies, the narrative was confidence.
“We’re very confident.” Phil Pietroniro said in mid January. “We’ve got enough time to move up, and I think teams know we’re on the move. I really think we’re going to get there,” and he was just one voice among many with the same message.
Confidence in the face of adversity. Confidence in the face of one long grind of a season, punctuated with bright stretches of terrific winning streaks and dazzling performances, bracketed by bad bounces, tough losses, and an endless litany of injuries.
There was never any bravado, just a calm certainty that they had what it would take to fight their way into a playoff spot.
From the coach on out, even in the deepest, darkest depths of an awful November and a patchy December, this team believed. Even when it got bad.
And boy did it ever get bad. The Grizzlies went 9-16-1-1 before Christmas, including a nine-game losing streak between November 18th and December 4th that saw them nosedive from atop the Mountain Division to well out of the playoffs.
There were games where they played well, and couldn’t buy a bounce or a goal, games where the hockey gods seemed to mock them as opposing goalies made impossible save after impossible save. Of course, there was the occasional game where the entire team was terrible, but every team has those, and despite everything, those games remained the exception rather than the rule.
On January 6th, the Grizzlies were 14 points out of a playoff spot with key pieces like Erik Higby and Colin Martin out of the lineup with injuries. But they still hadn’t given up.
That’s when the season turned around, though things certainly didn’t get any easier.
On January 21st Utah was at the front end of a seven-game winning streak, only to have their blue line decimated by injury. By mid February, they were only three points out, but had only three healthy defensemen in the lineup. Yet they never packed it in, despite some overwhelming adversity. Forwards played defense, defenders played forward, and Tim Branham rebuilt nearly all of his blue line, and parts of his forward group on the fly.
In March they’d clawed back to within five of Alaska, only to be seemingly derailed by a brutal home stand against Colorado. But they pulled themselves together, and proceeded to win six of the next seven games.
Whether it was in individual games – like the one in Rapid City where Ralph Cuddemi scored two goals in less than a minute to force overtime in January, the brutal short-handed victory in Alaska in February, or their crazy four goal comeback also against Alaska in March – or in the season as a whole, the Grizzlies showed their resilience and their fortitude.
And now here they stand, having gone 22-12-3-1 since January. It may have taken them until the eleventh hour to secure their playoff berth, but they’re here. For the tenth straight season, the Grizzlies are in the hunt for the Kelly Cup.
Against all odds, they made it.
Technically, there may have been nothing at stake in Saturday’s game, with Utah’s playoff spot clinched, and the Mavericks eliminated from contention days earlier, but neither team packed it in.
Garrett Haar sat this one out, as did Colin Martin, after going rib first into the goal post on Friday. Erik Higby remained sidelined while Travis Howe drew back in, and Cam Reid made his return to the lineup for the first time since February 24th.
Utah got two of the first three shots, and Kevin Boyle was sharp in his sixth straight start. There were very few whistles, and the puck bounced quite a bit. One of those bounces found its way from the stick of Dane Fox and into the back of the net at 6:10. Just moments later, Boyle made an absolutely phenomenal save along the goal line to keep the score 1-0 as the Grizzlies seemed to ease off the gas briefly through the middle of the frame.
Boyle continued to be the Grizzlies’ best player early, but gradually Utah got their skates under them. Jon Puskar just narrowly missed tying the game up with just about six minutes to go, off a terrific shift with Travis Howe and C.J. Eick.
With about four minutes to go, things got exciting. Howe and Jacob Doty dropped the gloves right off the faceoff. After a lengthy tilt, Howe eventually went down, and both combatants got two for removing their helmets in addition to their five for fighting.
Ralph Cuddemi got a beautiful wrap around attempt followed up by a net crashing effort by Eick and Puskar, but Missouri’s Josh Robinson continued to hold the fort.
After a pretty disjointed first period, Utah led in shots 16-12, but Missouri held the 1-0 lead.
The Grizzlies picked up right where they left off to start the second, Puskar making it 1-1 from Cuddemi and Gabriel Verpaelst at 1:36. On the other end, Boyle continued to answer the call. Cuddemi and Eick got a nice two-on-one, as that line, backed by Tim Daly and Phil Pietroniro, had a strong shift in the offensive zone.
With about fifteen minutes left, Verpaelst was hit up high, went down in distress, and in the aftermath of the hit, the Mavs went up 2-1.
With 14:37 to go, Pietroniro made a nice pass to Puskar, who passed to Eick, who threw the puck on net. The goal horn went off, and the Grizzlies celebrated, but it was ruled no goal. Needless to say, the 8,874 fans in attendance were less than pleased.
On the very next shift, Erik Bradford scored for real at 5:40, tipping in Rob Mann’s point shot, making it 2-2, and giving Mann his first pro point. Brassard got the secondary assist, giving him four points in the last five games, and the crowd went absolutely wild.
Just about a minute later, Cuddemi sprang Eick, and C.J. beat out the Missouri defensemen, driving across the crease to go five hole for his ninth of the year. Cuddemi got his second assist of the night, while Pietroniro, who started the play, got the other helper.
Immediately after that, Howe and Doty dropped the gloves again, and had yet another marathon bout. Both got another two and five for fighting and removing their helmets. Boyle was called upon to make another phenomenal save two-on-one on the shift after that, much to the frustration of the Mavericks.
Utah began to really get going after the half-way mark, turning the offensive zone into a shooting gallery as they kept the puck in the zone through multiple successive shifts.
The Grizzlies drew the first power play of the night with at 14:35, but scarcely had the power play commenced than Daly was assessed a holding the stick penalty, evening play up at four a side.
Michael Pelech took a roughing call and then a ten-minute misconduct immediately afterwards, putting the Grizzlies down 4-on-3 for 1:23, then a brief 5-on-3. However, Utah’s penalty kill handled the situation, and escaped unscathed, thanks in part to Missouri clinging to the periphery, and to the efforts of Boyle and the defenders.
At the end of an eventful second period, Utah led 3-2, and held the narrow 24-23 advantage in shots as well.
The third period did not get off to an auspicious start, as Conner Bleackley scored a grand total of 58 seconds into the frame to tie it up.
Fortunately, the Grizzlies responded.
At about the nine minute mark, Pietroniro led a beautiful up-ice rush, fired a shot on net, and Eick batted the rebound in past Robinson for his tenth of the year. Puskar got the secondary assist, giving all three players multiple point games.
Utah continued to manage the puck well through the frame, and were rewarded with 6:16 left to go when Larraza’s point shot went to Bradford, and Daly put away the rebound. The goal was Daly’s 10th of the season, and Bradford’s assist gave him a multi-point game as well.
When the final buzzer of the regular season sounded, Utah led 5-3, and outshot Missouri 37-26.
On the second of two fan appreciation nights, the game was nothing if not a crowd-pleaser. It might not have been the best from a pure hockey stand point, but it had something of everything. There were good goals, bad goals, called off goals, fights, huge saves, some nifty, nifty plays, an absolutely electric crowd, and multi-point games from five different players. Puskar and Bradford both had a goal and an assist, Pietroniro and Cuddemi picked up two assists each, while C.J. Eick closed the regular season as he opened it, with two goals. And, of course, Boyle continued to be a difference maker in net, turning aside 23 out of 26 shots.
Travis Howe was named first star of the game, earning a deafening ovation from the crowd, while Eick and Puskar were the well deserving second and third stars.
It was a fitting end to a remarkable season.
“It’s one of those games that’s kind of tough,” C.J. Eick said after the game. “because you want to go into playoffs playing the right way with the right mentality. But at the same time you know that the spots already locked up, in the back of your mind you’re thinking you don’t want to get hurt, you don’t want to take any injuries on the night. It definitely made for a loose, fast paced game”
Looking back on the season, and the team’s overall attitude, Eick continued, “We knew what kind of team we had. A couple of those runs where we had some losses, we were playing well, we just weren’t getting the bounces, we were finding ways to lose games. But we knew that if we stuck with the process, we’d get back with the winning side, and that’s what happened.”
Tim Branham’s thoughts on the team’s performance were in a similar vein.
“I thought it was really energetic from both sides. I thought it was a good game. Definitely liked our energy, I thought we were playing well even though we got behind early. They worked hard, got a lucky bounce. I thought we were playing some good hockey. We really took over the last half of that 1st period and got a lot of shots on net and then out third period was good, using our speed and pushing them back on their heels, just get more pressure on the goaltender and knew we would break the dam.”
“I definitely believed in this group along,” Branham said when asked to reflect on the season as a whole. “I knew some changes had to be made and some tough decisions had to be made up front, trading some guy away that we did not want to, [that’s] just the nature of the business with the amount of injuries that we had. You gotta give the boys props, you gotta give them credit, they battled through and they wanted to get in. Had to do it by winning, and I thought they did a tremendous job at sticking together, scoring the goals when they had to. Winning that 5 and 0 on that road trip was massive. You really gotta give the guys credit, they did an amazing job and they deserved to celebrate a little bit here with the fans, and then the real work begins, that’s for sure.
“The position that we were at in January, after a real tough stretch, winless in nine, to be able to pull though, battle through, that month of February was really important. We got to play the teams in our division and close the gap a little bit there in Alaska, and then obviously that last road trip going 5 and 0 was big. It’s a character group. They know what it takes to win and its just a matter of having people in that lineup on a consistent basis getting some chemistry, and bringing in some new D-men. We had to revamp the D-core after it was decimated so it was good. The boys never said die, found a way to get the job done, its huge. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us right now and we gotta make sure we’re ready.”
The battle for the playoff spot is over, but the war is only just begun. The Grizzlies will face the reigning Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans against whom they were 0-2-1-1 this season.
“We know what we’re up against. They won a lot of championships here in a row, they got some guys on their team who know how to win, but so do we. We gotta make them play defense. They went out and got a lot of high end talent there at the deadline. We gotta make sure that we’re in their face, not giving them time to make plays, and make them play defense. We’ve been saying puck possession all year, when we have the puck their team cants score so, we gotta make sure that we stick to that philosophy and see if we can’t frustrate them a little bit and take it one game at a time.”
It’s a tall task, to be sure, but Utah is very familiar with those by now, and if we’ve learned anything from the regular season, it’s this.
Don’t ever, ever count the Grizzlies out when there’s still time for a comeback.
Photo courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies