When your fighter is a fight away from a Gordie Howe hat trick and doesn’t get it because he’s too busy being a scoring forward, you know it was an extraordinary night.
“I am proud to be their coach” Tim Branham said after the game. “It was a little worrisome there in the first five minutes, but I thought everyone settled in and held in the five shots in the first, seven in the second. I mean, that team can play, so they’re going to get some scoring chances there in the third. I thought we played extremely well five on five the entire weekend. Thought we deserved a better fate on Wednesday. Friday could have went either way, it is what it is. Power to the boys, battled back hard, in front of an awesome crowd, obviously our fans are the best in the league. We deserved this. We got some help around the league as well, so four points out, we just gotta keep it going.”
While the night ended with a certain feeling of triumph, it certainly did not start that way.
The first couple of shifts were promising. Utah got off the mark strong, and in the second shift or so, Mitch Jones threw the puck at the net almost from the goal line, and Ryan Misiak nearly put it past Lukas Hafner. Travis Howe drew a tripping call behind the Eagles’ net, but Ryan Olsen flew in, and even though Mitch Maxwell got back in time, Olsen made it 1-0 short-handed.
Things continued to look pretty bleak for a while after that as well. When the Eagles returned to full strength, Ryan Siiro beat Brandon Wildung on a cross crease pass from Jake Marto. 2-0 at 4:40, and it looked like the game was teetering on the verge of a blow out.
But whatever the Grizzlies issues may be, or have been, this season, they have never given up easily.
Misiak got boarded at 8:16, and the Grizzlies drew another power play. This one ended without mishap as the team got their feet under them.
At 12:52 Maxwell made it 2-1, freezing Hafner, and roofing it for his second goal in as many nights from Howe and Jake Marchment, cutting the lead in half. Utah then killed off a Michael Pelech tripping called a minute later.
The third line continued to absolutely shine, and at 17:49, Maxwell shot the puck on net. Marchment collared the rebound on the edge of the blue paint, and sent it cross-crease to Howe who scored his third of the season to tie it up.
Jones and Brady Shaw took matching minors for cross-checking and embellishment respectively at 19:02, and at the end of 20 the Grizzlies headed into the room tied 2-2, shots 13-5 in their favor. They never looked back.
The second opened with what should have been about a minute of four-on-four, but instead was twenty seconds of four-on-four before Pelech took a tripping call to put the Grizzlies down four-on-three. The team fought hard though, allowing only two shots on the short-handed situation. Misiak flew in with a short-handed look during that time, but continued to be plagued by bad luck, and Hafner turned it aside.
Utah drew another power play as Marchment got roughed, and after the whistle, a crowed gathered, which resulted in Jones and Joey Ratelle both getting five for fighting as well.
Brendan and the Ryans continued to be outrageously snakebitten, as all three converged on Hafner, but were unable to beat him. Howe also got a glorious opportunity for a second goal, but was denied as well.
With 13:53 to go, Drayson Bowman got two for slashing, and Utah went to yet another power play. Utah continued to put together their best period of hockey this weekend. Pelech spun and fired a great shot on Hafner, and so did Mitton, But the Eagles returned to full strength with no change in score, and Howe leveled Ben Storm right as the Eagles were whistled off side.
The Grizzlies continued to roll with a vengeance, playing stellar defense, getting sticks down in lanes, crowding puck-carriers off the puck, and spending long shifts in the offensive zone. Nate Mitton flew around absolutely fearlessly laying hits on Matt Register and Teigan Zahn, and then helping generate scoring chances left right and center.
With just eight seconds to go, Ryan Walters took a tripping call, but after 40, the Grizzlies had out worked and out-shot Colorado to the tune of 24-12.
Utah killed off the Walters penalty, allowing only one shot on the opening advantage. Colorado played for several minutes in the offensive zone, before the Grizzlies got on their horse, and responded with a couple of great shifts from some newish lines, one centered by Brad Navin with Misiak and Pelech, the other by Walters with Harms and Thomas.
It was the later line that put the crowning touch on the game. Brendan Harms electrified the 9,288 fans in attendance by making it 3-2 at 9:54 finally capitalizing on some lengthy Utah dominance.
Neal Goff took a roughing call against Thomas 11:36 into the third, and Hafner had to be helped off the ice after his skate blade broke. He came back a couple of shifts later, however, and the Eagles killed off the penalty.
Colorado bore down, but the Grizzlies fought them off, forcing players like Olsen to rush back and play defense against former line-mates in Walters and Harms.
With 1:30 to go, the Eagles pulled Hafner for the extra skater. The Grizzlies twice grazed the outer netting of the empty net, and when the final buzzer went, they were the victors.
Harms’ five shots led the team, and his goal stood up as the game winner. He was named a well deserved first star of the game, Wildung got second star, and Howe the third with his second professional multi-point night in the last six games. Maxwell easily could have been a star as well, like Howe netting a goal and an assist, and picking up his third point in the last two games.
“We battled hard this weekend. That’s a good team right there, that team works hard.” Branham said of Colorado. “There is a reason why they are defending champs, and doing so well the way that they are. We are going to take a couple days and rest, spend some time with the Booster Club tomorrow. Rest up for a couple days and get back out there on Tuesday, prepare for Idaho. We play well against Idaho, we play well in Idaho. Can’t take that for granted, we have to make sure that we come ready to play. They’re a good team as well.”
Unsurprisingly, he had nothing but praise for Howe. “He’s been amazing. Absolutely amazing. Played a regular shift tonight. The way he’s blocking shots, and getting pucks out, and playing defence, and producing. I don’t know how many points he has recently, it’s a lot. It’s great. He’s got a lot of space out there because no one wants to go around him. But, he’s using it to his advantage. He’s an unbelievable force in our dressing room as well, as well as in the community. Really happy for him. He’s come a long way, and I’m really, really happy for him.”
Howe himself was just happy to have helped the team, and quick with praise for his line-mates. “Really realistically, anything I can do to help the team out, and tonight I just happened to get put in a situation where I was able to put up a couple of points…and playing with Marchment, Maxwell those are unbelievable hockey players, so it just makes the game so much easier. I haven’t got a Gordie yet and I was hoping to get one tonight but as long as you got the win that’s really all that matters.”
Thanks to regulation losses by Allen and Tulsa, Utah trails the former by four points, and the later by two in the push for the final spot.
“Yeah, I mean, the other teams lose it’s huge.” Howe said of the outcome of those games, “But at the same time, we’re just focusing on us right now. Chipping away, trying to win every game, get as many points as we can to climb the ladder, and hopefully we get that last playoff spot.”
There isn’t a lot of time left, but as every sports fan knows, it ain’t over till it’s over, and as every Grizzlies’ fan knows, this team isn’t going down without a fight.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming, and staff.