It was a good night, a good game, a good crowd, and the rousing chorus of Happy Birthday addressed to first star and birthday boy Caleb Herbert was just icing on the cake.
“I thought it was nice to get out on the right foot there, especially here at home in front of the fans. They brought the energy tonight, and it definitely helped us. Congratulations to Coach on his all-time winning record there, that was awesome to get that out of the way for him” Herbert said after the game.
Utah picked up a 4-2 win against Rapid City on opening night, on the strength of two goals and an assist from Herbert, and a terrific 26 save showing from the newly arrived Joe Cannata, and it was a momentous one. Not only was it a good start to a new year and affiliation, but the win also gave Head Coach Tim Branham his 179th, and the franchise record for wins by a head coach.
“Obviously I owe a lot to the players, to my staff, to the organization for sticking with me and giving me the opportunity, so it’s nice.” Branham said after the game. “I’m glad we got to get it out of the way, and we can just focus on moving forward and getting as many wins as we can.”
Utah began strong, before Rapid City found their legs. Cannata made a few saves early, and then Josh Winquist found himself all alone in the offensive zone, and put Utah up 1-0 just 2:57 into the game. The whole line got in on the action as Caleb Herbert and Cole Ully drew the assists.
Austin Carroll made his presence felt early and often, but unfortunately a flubbed clearing attempt by Brendan Harms led to an uncontested look by Adam Marsh, who tied it up at 9:12. Moments later, yet another Rush player was once again left alone in front of the net, but Cannata was there to make the save.
R.T. Rice made an emphatic debut shortly thereafter, laying a couple of monster hits before the Grizzlies drew their first power play. The advantage struck just 33 seconds in. Herbert got his first goal of the night, Winquist picked up his second point, and Walters got the secondary.
At 18:39 Taylor Richart took a stick to the face, and Utah made Rapid City pay again, as Herbert got goal number two from defenseman Kevin Davis, and Walters about forty seconds into the power play.
The teams hit the rooms after an exciting period, advantage Utah 3-1, shots 10-9 in their favor.
Rapid City got a couple of offensive zone shifts to start the second, but both teams picked up a shot with no change in score. The Winquist, Herbert, Ully line continued to look dangerous every time they hit the ice, nearly combining for one a couple of minutes in.
Through the middle of the second, the Grizzlies and Rush traded penalties, but despite some big hits and a couple of scoring chances, neither team capitalized.
Rapid City nearly drew within one, pouncing on a turnover, and leaving Richart and Cannata to fend off a three-on-one. Fortunately, Cannata was more than up for the challenge.
Utah took two more penalties towards the end of the period as things got chippy, but after forty they maintained their 3-1 lead.
Ully continued to have a strong game in the third, along with Winquist and Herbert, and Winquist and Gage Ausmus nearly pulled off a two-on-one while killing off a Matt Berry penalty.
Teigan Zahn and Riley Weselowski were called for roughing at 13:05, but there was no change until Matt Pufahl took a hooking call with less than two minutes to go. The Rush called their time out and pulled their goalie, and at 19:24, Tim McGauley scored on the empty net.
With less than 20 seconds left in the game, Rapid City made it 4-2 on a scramble, but that was as close as they came.
Herbert, Cannata, and Walters were named the three stars of the game, but guys like Ully and Ottenbreit also impressed.
“That line is pretty exciting with Herbert and Ully and Winquist,” Branham said of the top line who put up a combined six points, “It’s an exciting line for the fans, that’s for sure. They like to get after it, push the pace, and get creative, so we saw how good those guys are, we just gotta make sure that those other lines are following suit and working hard to get their chances.”
Of the first star specifically, Branham added, “He’s a good player, he’s good in the face-off circle, he’s very talented, and he wants to do well, and when you’ve got guys like that that want to prove themselves and produce at this level so they can get to the next level it’s fun to coach. Good teammate right there, and he’s definitely got a good surrounding cast around him.”
“It definitely helps, just building that camaraderie, and confidence in the locker room, it definitely helps to get off to with a nice win at home,” Herbert said, but the overall message was clear. “We need to keep it going, it’s just one game, we need to string a few together and keep our foot on the gas.”
As Branham noted, there are still things to work on, but it was a promising start to the new season.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard and staff