On Wednesday night, in their first games against their former teams, Ryan Olsen, Cliff Watson, Gage Ausmus, and Jake Marchment were all in their teams’ starting lineups. In Utah’s net, new goalie Brandon Wildung got his first pro start.
The Grizzlies got off to a good start, Ryan Walters flying in largely uncontested, until Matt Register lifted his stick at the last moment.
Utah took the first penalty of the night, a cross-checking call on Chris Leibinger, but the Grizzlies killed it off, and Walters rang the cross-bar short-handed on a glorious pass from Brendan Harms.
In hi early tests, Wildung looked good, poised and calm, On a hard working shift in front of the net from Jake Marchment, Travis Howe, and Walters, Howe banged the puck in past Lukas Hafner to open the scoring.
Then things got interesting. On the very next shift, Brad Navin flew in with a head of steam, and was tripped up, sending Utah to the delayed power play and then the power play. On the first shift of the power play proper, Taylor Richart came wheeling around the Eagles net, and was leveled. It looked scary, fortunately in the end, he skated off under his own steam, though he did not return.
The power play unit got working after that, and though they didn’t score, Navin briefly hobbled Teigan Zahn, and the Grizzlies took over the shot lead.
Unfortunately, at 13:48 Watson beat Wildung with the assist from Olsen to tie it up. Leibinger took a hooking call on the next shift. Once again, the Utah penalty kill was strong, and Leibinger sprinted out of the box, and made a sweet pass to Harms, who shot just wide.
The Grizzlies drew yet another power play at 2:08 as Kyle Thomas kept his feet moving. The best chance on the advantage went to Thomas and Michael Pelech about half way through the power play, and at the end of twenty, Utah and Colorado remained tied 1-1, shots 8-7 for the Eagles.
The Grizzlies opened the second decently, Leibinger displaying a beautiful bit of puck handling to keep the play in the offensive zone, but after that, the Eagles pressured.
Utah eventually got themselves back in order, getting a couple of near things as first Mitch Jones’ shot bounced in on Hafner oddly, and then rolled through the blue paint moments later.
Half way through the period, Sam Babintsev broke the deadlock, scoring his third of the season from Thomas.
With under two minutes to go, Graaskamp made a really nice pass to Navin, Navin wired it just wide, and Melindy drew a power play with 1:55 yo go.
Olsen motored in one-on-one short-handed, but his shot was turned aside. The puck bounced wildly in front of Hafner, but the period came to an end, still 2-1 Utah, shots 13-13.
The Eagles got the first four shots of the period, but Wildung made some really great saves to hold on to the lead.
The Grizzlies got possession at about the six minute mark, but mostly cycled it until Jones wired one on net. Halfner was there to meet it however, and somehow Brendan Harms ended up with a high-sticking penalty at 6:51.
The Grizzlies’ kill continued to be excellent, Wildung making some more good saves, and Walters missing on a short-handed break away.
Just after the Grizzlies returned to full-strength, Pelech swatted the puck on net, beating Hafner five-hole to put the Grizzlies up 3-1 at 9:01.
The Eagles pressured after the goal, as one would expect, and Wildung turned aside a big shot one-on one.
Unfortunately, the wheels came off a bit, as Matt Garbowski scored at 14:55 when the coverage around the Utah net faltered, and on the very next shift, Olsen put one past Wildung to tie it up.
In the final minute, Harms threw the puck on net through traffic, but the game once more went to OT.
Harms had a really good looking OT shift, but shortly afterwards Watson flew in uncontested, was turned aside, then regaining the puck after Utah flubbed the play, beat Wildung and the Grizzlies’ defenders to win the game.
It was a familiar outcome; play a strong game against a strong opponent, lose focus at a few crucial moments, and pay for it with an overtime loss.
“I thought we played a pretty solid game,” Tim Branham said after the game. “I mean there were times where Colorado had control. We talked to the boys before the game about playing a full sixty minutes, same thing with the game in Worcester, we had complete control of the game in Worcester for fifty minutes, and then in the last ten we didn’t. Same here tonight. Fifty-five minutes we had control and then the last five we kind of let slip. There’s a couple of guys who made some huge mistakes, it is what it is, that’s a learning experience, and at this point in the season, it should be pretty clear your roles and responsibilities.
“They have players on their team that make big plays, we have guys that are learning, and they’re young. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way it went. At this point in the season, we needed two points, definitely, from a game like that. That one stings a little bit.”
Marchment’s thoughts were in a similar vein:
“We just gotta find ways to win. We’re finding ways to lose games right now, we’ve got leads going into third periods, or we’re tied, we’ve lost three of our last five in over time now, so just finding ways to get that extra point, work a little harder, bear down a little more on our scoring chances, but we still have a little bit of time here, we just gotta start getting some wins, and do what we can on our part. Hopefully other teams lose, and we can maybe sneak in.”
Wildung was definitely one of the players who did do his part. “I thought he played well, I thought for coming in his first pro game,” Branham said, “He definitely got some good experience, and did a good job.”
“It’s just a great opportunity for me,” Brandon said, “Playing professional hockey has been a dream of mine ever since I can remember it’s what I’ve wanted to do, so for this organization to give me a chance it means a lot to me.”
Wildung, whose freshman year overlapped with Misiak’s senior in the 2013-14 season at Mercyhurst, has appreciated already knowing someone in the organization.
“It’s awesome, it’s great to come to a new organization and see a familiar face,” he said. “I mean the guys have all been great, but when you come in and you know a guy it makes it…kind of gives a little bit of a breather.”
While a familiar face may give Wildung a breather from all the newness of location, level, team and the like, a breather is exactly what the Grizzlies do not have. They face Colorado twice more (Friday and Saturday) before heading out to Idaho next weekend. After that, they play Colorado once more, and then finish off the season at home against Kansas City. They are still chasing Allen and Tulsa who are both four points ahead with a game in hand.
The task is by no means impossible, last year’s Grizzlies were in almost exactly the same boat, but they’re going to have to play a complete 60 minutes every game to do it.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming, and staff.