On the heels of a Cliff Watson call-up, a Jon Puskar suspension, and the absence of Brendan Harms (probably a result of the big hit he took in Colorado), the lineup saw yet another minor change. Ryans Misiak and Olsen skated with Brad Navin, while Zach Saar drew in on the third line with Erik Higby and C.J. Eick. Rob Mann returned to the lineup for the first time since November 10th, and Travis Howe was the tenth forward.
Ryan Walters and Taylor Richart wore the As, and Kevin Carr once again got the start.
The Olsen line got the first shot of the game, but the Grizzlies took the first penalty when Michael Pelech went off for slashing at 3:07. The penalty kill remained strong, even getting an up-ice rush or two of their own.
Idaho took an answering penalty just a few moments before the kill expired, and Utah went to the man advantage. It took the Grizzlies a while to set up in the offensive zone, and they ultimately came up empty.
As Idaho returned to full strength, the Grizzlies survived the first of several mad scrambles that occurred in front of the Utah net.
Goals off the face-off continue to be an ongoing problem for Utah, as Olsen got thrown out of the circle, Misiak lost the draw, and Shane Hanna scored on a nice shot at 11:03. The Olsen line, which had, up until that point, been having a strong night, followed up the bad face-off shift with a number of strong ones in the minutes that followed.
Good hustle from Eick drew a power play at 13:32 but though the Grizzlies maintained possession for a large majority of the five-on-four, with the exception of a chance from Walters in the blue paint that rang iron, and a lovely pass from Hanson to Misiak in the slot, they were largely unable to get the puck out of the perimeter.
With about three minutes to go, Idaho a two-on-one on a bad bounce, but shortly thereafter Navin laid a hit at the Idaho bench which forced a turnover, and Misiak hit a flying Olsen with the perfect cross-seam pass. Olsen’s fourth tied the game with 2:46 to go.
Richart got taken down with 35 seconds left in the period, and Utah went into the first intermission tied 1-1, shots 11-10.
The early power play went the way of so many others, even with Philippe Desrosiers missing his stick for a substantial stretch on one shift. Navin had a couple of good attempts, and Saar got off a good shot, but Idaho returned to full strength with no change in score.
Idaho came back three on two, and while Leibinger and Richart hand their hands full with the other two Steelheads, a wide open Hanna scored his second of the game and third of the year at 3:09.
Walters was hit up high with 14:35 left in the frame, but though he went down, and took a moment to get up, but he skated off, and didn’t miss a shift. No penalty was awarded on the play.
An Idaho turnover directly onto Olsen’s stick nearly sprang 13 on the breakaway, but the puck bounced, and Utah somehow ended up with a power play a moment later. Windle and Mitch Moroz jawed at each-other for a moment, and the Grizlies went to work. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, it was once again a strong possession power play, and Olsen got off a big shot, but it was blocked in front of Desrosiers, and Utah was not credited with a single shot.
There was another scramble around the Grizzlies net, and then the second line carried the puck up the ice, and Olsen got another grade A scoring chance.
Higby took a hooking minor half-way through the frame, but Idaho was similarly unable to muster any shots.
The two teams exchanged offensive zone time in the final couple of minutes of the game, Utah looking a little sloppy in their own zone, and Carr making an uncharacteristically bad play with the puck. However, luck went the Grizzlies’ way for a change, and a turnover by Alexander Dahl saw the puck go straight to the stick of Walters. He made no mistake, slinging the puck past Desrosiers for his fifth of the season, and third in as many games, with 1:26 left in the period.
The teams traded zone time to start the third again, while Branham alternated almost exclusively between the first and second lines, but Walters ran into Desrosiers driving hard to the net, and took a penalty. Pelech made one of those defensive plays that make him so valuable to the team, and Utah once again got lucky in yet another scramble around the net.
The Grizzlies had a couple of egregious turnovers in the defensive zone with just a bit over twelve minutes left, but Idaho was unable to sort themselves out enough to take advantage of them. Meanwhile, the Misiak-Olsen-Navin line continued to turn in a really strong performance, eventually putting up ten of the Grizzlies’ 23 shots.
Idaho’s Austin Fyten was assessed a ten minute unsportsmanlike conduct during a time out with 4:46 left to go. Idaho pressured in the final minutes of the game, but with 5.4 seconds left in the period, they iced the puck, and the Grizzlies took their timeout to get organized.
Olsen won the draw, and Hanson got off a shot, but at the end of 60, they were still deadlocked at two.
Utah played their league-leading 10th OT in a very controlled and conservative manner, getting only one shot to Idaho’s three, but carrying the puck for the vast majority of the time. In the end, OT wasn’t enough to break the tie either, and the game went to the shoot-out. It ended in all to familiar fashion. Carr let in a single goal on a crazy fake-out, and none of the Grizzlies answered.
“Tonight, I didn’t think we got the chances like we normally have.”Tim Branham said when asked about the team’s 23-shot performance. “Normally we create a lot more chances than that. But I still think you’re right. Structurally, we’re playing fine. Some guys, I think we had a few guys that maybe could have done a little bit more, but I thought for the most part we played some pretty good hockey. Would have been nice to have gotten two points against a depleted lineup there in Idaho, but I thought their goalie made some good saves, we hit the crossbar on a wide open net again. That’s been the story of our season so far, not scoring enough goals. I thought today was an anomaly though, we didn’t generate the chances like we normally do, but yet we still were in the game, and had power plays we could have scored on, and hit a crossbar on the power play on a wide open net. It is what it is. We’ve got to keep on playing the same way. We can’t deviate from the way that we’re playing, we’ve just got to try that much harder.”
One player who did do a little bit more was Ryan Olsen. The jump that has been missing from his game of late was back with a vengeance, and it wasn’t just him. After not making the trip to Colorado, Navin looked really sold. He was making plays look easy that he wouldn’t even have tried a few weeks back, while Ryan Misiak, who was on a four point roll before last weekend, led the team with four shots, as well as being instrumental in the first goal.
“I thought he did good tonight. I thought he stepped up.” Branham said of Olsen’s game. “Obviously scoring a goal early gets his confidence going. He’s very effective when he’s skating, and putting pucks on net, cause he’s very fast at this level, a big body, and he’s very good on draws. So when he sticks to what he’s good at, he’s very effective.”
Speaking of effective players, Chris Leibinger is neither flashy, nor a particularly prolific point producer, but he turns in a quietly consistent performance night in and night out. In fact, barring two middling games when he first arrived, he’s been terrific for the team. Likewise, Mitch Jones tends to fly under the radar, unnoticeable in the way good defencemen often are, before grabbing your attention with a great defensive play, or wicked shot.
When asked about the power play, which carried and possessed the puck well, but generated almost no shots, Branham said, “Against a PK unit like Idaho, they’re very aggressive, so passing it along the perimeter is good to settle them down, but then at some point, you’ve got to funnel pucks to the net, and I think we missed a couple opportunities to do that. I think that if we can kind of hone in on those small little opportunities—we worked on it a lot, showed a lot of video on it, we had quite a few plays in mind—it was jut one thing here, one thing there that messed it up. But we did a good job of gaining the zone, we did a job of possessing it, now it’s a matter of making sure we take that shot with traffic, and do a better job on those rebounds, of getting to those loose pucks so we get that puck back and we shoot. I thought you were right, we did possess the puck well we’ve just gotta do a better job of funneling the puck to the net.”
Kevin Carr was a little shaky at times, and it was nice to see the Grizzlies working hard to help him out around the net, when he’s been the one doing the rescuing on most nights this season. He was excellent in the shoot out, allowing only that one crazy fake-out goal. If anyone on this team deserves some wins, it’s him.
Speaking of wins (or a distressing lack thereof), last year at this time the Grizzlies were in the middle of a nine game losing streak, with an abysmal 7-13-1-1 record on December 4th. They then proceeded on their more-or-less annual post-Christmas tear, which saw them go 29-16-3-1 after that stretch. Meanwhile, this year’s team is 6-9-5-2, with standings points in 13 of 22 games. Highly frustrating, to be sure, but certainly better than it could be.
“They’re doing ok. Tonight was frustrating, because I thought we deserved better for the way we’ve been playing lately, but we’re collecting points. These are going to be huge later on down the road. We’re collecting points, we’re not getting losses, we’re collecting those points. We’ve got a lot of games within our division coming up still. This group is never out of it, my teams are never out of it. We’ve gotta fix a couple things, and we’ll be just fine.”
Utah plays the second of six games against Idaho tonight (Wednesday) at the Mav before heading out to Idaho for the weekend.
Image courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming and staff