The Grizzlies iced the same lineup in the home opener as they did in Colorado, with the exception of goaltender Angus Redmond, who got the start. But while the personnel remained the same, the lines saw a little reworking. Likewise, Erik Higby started the game on defence, but ended it as a forward, and Zach Saar started the game, and played well, but was not on the bench in the later going.
Both teams tested out the ice in the offensive zones, but it was Colorado who created the first sustained possession time, and Utah twice iced the puck in the opening five minutes.
Redmond made a number of saves early on, and Saar continued his strong play, displaying both his foot-speed and puck-possession abilities on the way up the ice before being taken down.
Just past the five minute mark, C.J. Eick and Brad Navin very nearly repeated their opening goal of the night previously, as the Grizzlies pressured, getting several good scoring chances, including a net-front chance from Kyle Thomas. The crowd was also enthusiastic in their welcome home to Jon Puskar when he laid a thundering hit on an Eagles player in the offensive zone.
The Grizzlies ran into some difficulties in the following minutes, and Eick took a holding penalty with 6:59 left in the first. Utah’s businesslike penalty kill went to work, and after some good efforts by Thomas, Puskar, and others, they got away unscathed. Unfortunately, they iced the puck twice in quick succession thereafter. The sloppy play continued to the end of the period, as neither team was really able to get anything set up
Utah fought through two shots from Colorado, but were unable to keep the third chance out of the back of the net, as Drayson Bowman got the first goal of the game.
Navin took the first face-off violation of the Grizzlies season (a new rule, wherein a team receives a bench minor after two violations on the same face-off) with less than 30 seconds left in the frame, but Utah escaped to the dressing room down just the one goal.
The Grizzlies killed off the penalty comfortably to start the second, and Taylor Richart electrified the 7,362 fans in attendance by banging in a rebound past Joe Cannata to tie the game at 1:29. Thomas and Navin got the assists on Richart’s first of the season.
Greger Hanson took a tripping penalty with 13:31 to go in the second, but the penalty kill kept Colorado chasing the puck, and in the shifts that followed, the Grizzlies pressed their advantage furiously, drawing a penalty at 9:31. However, they too struggled to get anything going on the advantage, and nearly allowing a couple of dangerous short-handed attempts.
Around the seven minute mark, Collin Bowman hit Eick in the corner. Puskar took exception, and both players were sent to the box, Puskar getting an extra two. Cliff Watson and Higby got a beautiful two-on-one chance short handed, and right as the penalty expired, Gabriel Verpaelst headed to the box for crosschecking for Colorado.
Utah’s power play struggles continued, and Richart took an interference call with three minutes to go. Then James Melindy took a tripping call, and the Grizzlies headed into a tricky five-on-three situation. The aggressive Utah penalty kill fended off the five-on-three, and the period and the remaining penalty came to an end together.
The third period saw action on both sides of the ice, but the Grizzlies, by and large, had the most offensive zone time through the first five minutes. With both Richart and Rob Mann getting huge shots from the point, and Hanson again electrifying the crowd with his ability to carry the puck up the ice.
Mitch Jones was slashed, and after a brief stint six-on-five for the delayed penalty, the Grizzlies commenced a power play that again struggled to get set up solidly.
The inability ultimately cost them, as Collin Bowman scored after a lengthy Eagles shift in the offensive zone.
Through the rest of the period the game was fairly back and forth, though perhaps with a slight edge to Colorado. That is not to say that Utah didn’t get chances, however.
In the dying seconds of the third, Redmond was pulled for the extra skater, but again, despite a determined effort, there was no buzzer beater, and Utah fell 2-1.
While the game was frustrating in some regards, there were still a lot of good things. The team played better than they did on Friday, and they looked a bit more like a unit than they had previously. The penalty kill, especially, was very strong, and Redmond had a good outing.
Melindy is the classic player you hate on an opposing team, but love to have on your own. He’s big, with a nasty edge, and is not even remotely shy of throwing his weight around, but he’s also an excellent defenceman who will to be a great asset to the team.
Richart again had a good game, and it is terrific to see him back on the ice and playing such a big role with the team in his second pro year.
“Last year I was a rookie obviously,” Richart when asked about the transition from rookie to alternate captain, “So just kind of finding my role, listening to the older guys, listening to what they had to say, and learning from it. As the year went on I felt more comfortable, and comfortable, I felt like I kind of started coming into my role, and just kind of helping guys. I always pride myself on hard work, and I think that kind of just carried over into the summer, worked very hard this summer, and came into camp ready to go for the season after the injury.”
Richart is one of only three Grizzlies with a goal (and an assist) this infant season, but the team has some good pieces, and they’re bound to come together in time.
“We have a lot of fire power, haven’t really been finding the back of the net, but we’re scoring in practice, so hopefully that will translate to the games. We’re getting chances, so that’s a big thing, keeping games close, so hopefully bounces will start coming our way, and we’ll be able to win the games.”
Head Coach Tim Branham’s thoughts on the matter were similar.
“We’ve been having a hard time scoring goals this season, I’m not too worried about that, we have some good players on this team that know how to score, so I think it’s only a matter of time. I wanted to make sure that we improved defensively from yesterday to today, and I think we did. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but I mean, they had six power plays, and that’s a good power play. They’re one of the best power plays in the league last year, and so for our penalty kill to do the job that it did, especially that five-on-three, was really good. So I thought Redmond was great, I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button on the goal scoring, we had one by a defenceman today, and none of our forwards contributed, but it’ll come. It’ll come. A lot of new pieces up front, so it’ll take some time to get some chemistry.”
Thomas, Hanson, and Sivak clearly have a great deal of skill and have gotten quite a few chances, but have yet to net a goal, and they’re obviously not the only ones in that boat. However, no one is concerned yet, least of all Coach Branham. The NHL may have far too many pre-season games these days, but the ECHL only has two so there’s not a lot of time for guys to get used to playing together in a game setting, especially when many players don’t arrive with a team until the pre-season is almost over.
“They [Thomas and Hanson] spent the past two or three years playing with different players, and getting that chemistry with different players” said Branham, “So it’s just going to take a little bit of time. Thomas was out—Thomas played like a period of the pre-season, right, he’s played two games now, so it’ll take some time to get some chemistry. I’m not worried about that, I just want to make sure our team game is moving in an upward direction, and I think it did that today.”
The Grizzlies’ next game is on Monday at 7:05 PM, against Tim Daly, Erik Bradford, and the Norfolk Admirals.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard/Jess Fleming and other staff photographers