Coming off a 6-3 win, Utah looked to build off their performance, and end the year on a high note. With the exception of Charley Graaskamp drawing in for Zach Saar, and Angus Redmond getting the start, the lineup remained unchanged.
The first period started with a bang, literally, as Jon Puskar and Justin Parizek dropped the gloves just 21 seconds in. Puskar got the take-down, and both players were sent to the box to cool their heels.
Once again, Idaho had good possession, getting five shots to Utah’s one, and then striking first at 3:08 once again from Jefferson Dahl.
With Puskar in the box, Graaskamp centred the first line, to some effect, and Greger Hanson rang iron. Unfortunately, Idaho came the other way on the next shift and made it 2-0 at 6:49.
Utah got a couple shots thereafter, but half of them went into the crest on Ryan Faragher’s jersey, and he had clear sight-lines on them all.
Michael Pelech took a charging minor at 10:15, and Kyle Thomas played hero on the penalty kill, blocking a hard shot and going down. He got up slowly, and immediately blocked another shot before making it off the ice.
It paid off, as the Grizzlies went the other way, Taylor Richart got off a big shot, and Graaskamp banged the rebound past Faragher from the doorstep.
Graaskamp took a tripping call with five minutes left in the first, but Utah got to the intermission still 2-1, despite being out-shot 15-11.
The second got off to a good start, as Puskar drew a penalty just 53 seconds into the period, as Dodero was a little too enthusiastic in his crosschecking in front of the Idaho net.
Unfortunately, it went down-hill from there. Jefferson Dahl hit Ryan Olsen hard along the boards at 1:33 and Olsen was very slow to get up. He got himself in trouble on the way back to the bench, jawing at Dahl, and was sent to the box, negating the power play. As soon as he left the box, he took a surprisingly ill-judged roughing call on Dahl again, and went straight back to the box. Steven McParland scored at 5:24, and Olsen found himself benched for the remainder of the game.
Idaho iced the puck a couple of times after their goal, but with 9:27 to go, Utah had spent a lot of time fighting off Idaho possession in their own zone. All three lines had a few good shifts, but then Pelech took a tripping call. Idaho promptly capitalized once more, and Redmond’s night was over.
Baldwin got his stick between Thomas’ legs, tripping him up, and when no call was forthcoming, the 5385 fans in attendance were riotous in their disapproval. Utah drew a power play at 14:42, and then drew another one at 15:13, giving them a 90 second five-on-three. The Grizzlies got some looks, but the Idaho kill closed ranks, and a golden opportunity was squandered.
Though Utah did not capitalize on the power play, the final two minutes of the second were much better, getting some great chances around Faragher, including a breakaway from Puskar. After 40, shots were 26-22, and the score 4-1 after some uncharacteristically ill-advised penalties led directly to goals.
Down 4-1, faced with the task of putting four past Faragher, things looked grim. But of course, it’s the Grizzlies, and when they’re rolling, it’s not wise to count them out before a game (or a season) is over.
Utah came out flying to start the third, and never really looked back. Mitch Jones continued his outstanding play, throwing a huge shot through traffic, and Ryan Walters tipped it home to cut the lead in half 3:30 into the third.
Cody Corbett took a hooking call on the next shift, and Utah made Idaho pay. With 23 seconds left in the advantage, Thomas dished to Pelech behind the net, Pelech tossed it to Puskar in the slot, and he made no mistake. And so it was 4-3 with over thirteen minutes to go, an amped up crowd, and a buzzing team.
Graaskamp electrified the fans, tying the game at 9:29, for his first career two goal game on with a phenomenal effort and assist by Chris Leibinger.
Carr was terrific in relief, making a couple of big saves to keep the game tied.
Thomas looked like he’d scored the game winner with 5:35 to go, but the refs called off the goal on supposed goaltender interference. Though that drew some ire from the Grizzlies, they kept their foot on the accelerator, and their eyes on the finish line.
Puskar and Chatham got matching penalties, Puskar for cross-checking, Chatham for embellishment at 16:15, and then Pelech and Corbett immediately followed them on the next shift getting matching roughs 12 seconds later. Lost in all that was a crazy dipsy-doodle from Leibinger to keep the puck alive.
Carr and Jones made some big saves and blocks as the game entered the last two minutes of the period, and the Grizzlies fought their way through a strong Idaho push.
At the buzzer, Brendan Harms took on Corbin Baldwin, despite giving up a good five inches, and forty pounds, and though Baldwin decidedly got the best of it, it was a spirited finish to an excellent period.
OT saw both teams getting good chances, including a rocket from Richart on a ridiculous play from Hanson. Leibinger also had a big chance, and Carr and the defense answered on the other end of the ice. At the end of overtime, there was no change in score, and Utah went to the shoot-out.
With the spectre of three shoot-out losses, and zero shoot-out goals looming large over the Maverik Center, Graaskamp put up another first, scoring his first career shoot-out goal, and the Grizzlies’ first of the year. Carr let in one Idaho goal, and Faragher stoned Puskar. With the game once again on his stick, the Captain delivered, capping off an incredible comeback, and giving the Grizzlies their first shoot-out win of the season in the last game of the year.
“Well, I didn’t like the fact that we gave up 15 shots in the first period.” Tim Branham said of the game. “You knew they were going to come out hard, but you’ve gotta be ready for them. We put ourselves in a hole, getting down early, and then taking a couple of dumb penalties. We haven’t had too many discipline issues this year, and so it wasn’t good to see that. So we put ourselves in a deep hole there going into the third period, but I mean, this group has come back so many times in the third period. We just did it again, and found a way, and it feels good. We needed it. Obviously, that’s a tough opponent there, we gained three points on them in the standings, and we just got to keep it going.”
He also reiterated how much Thomas’ return means to the Grizzlies’ depth, and how good their record is with him in the lineup (it’s 10-4-2-1), and pointed out again that the Grizzlies are still missing what had been their top pairing in Cliff Watson and James Melindy.
After being benched for four straight games, Graaskamp came out swinging, picking up two goals, and one in the shoot out, en rout to being named the first star of the game. Branham was nothing but complementary about his performance, and also shed some light on why he hasn’t been a more consistent member of the lineup.
“He was a veteran player tonight, right from Puskar getting in that fight early, it got Charley into the game early, and some confidence. He’s a good player. He’s a project for me, he’s a young kid coming out of major juniors. He’s got a lot of talent, and a lot of skill and I’m really itching to see how he is at the end of the year, and how he develops. You look at his points, and it’s like ‘how is a guy like that not in the lineup consistently?’ and, well, it’s the play without the puck, and tonight he was a veteran player. He was all over the ice, obviously scoring goals, tenacious, finishing checks, playing a game like that should only build his confidence. It’s great to see.”
“He’s just an awesome kid, obviously from Wisconsin,” he added with a grin, “But no. Honestly, he’s just an awesome kid, and I’m so glad to see he’s doing well.”
He’s not the only one doing well. It seems that after an anemic start, and a few false spikes, the Grizzlies’ goal-scoring is on a real upward trajectory, as they have scoring four or more in five of the last seven. Moreover, looking to the new year, if the records in three of the last four years are any kind of precedent, the Grizzlies’ post-Christmas record should be much improved.
Last year in the first 25 games, Utah went 9-14-1-1 before going 29-15-4-1. This year, though they have fewer wins, Utah has picked up more points, going 7-11-5-2, and the up-swing may already be underway, as they’ve gone 4-1-1-0 in the last five games.
Regardless of what the rest of this season holds, this game was an exciting cap to 2017, and we can look forward to 2018 with anticipation.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard/Jess Fleming and staff