A new season, new threads, a new captain, and 16 brand new faces. There’s a lot that’s new, but there’s still lot that’s familiar. Once again, the Grizzlies begin the year facing their long-time rivals, the Idaho Steelheads, and though there are mostly new faces, eight players have returned, and that new captain we mentioned? That’s Taylor Richart.
The first game of the season got off to a bit of a tentative start, both teams feeling each other out in the early going.
By the half-way point, returnee Travis Barron had laid a big hit, Griffen Molino had a chance, and the likes of Yuri Terao, and Peter Tischke had shown off a little of what they can do.
By the half-way point, the Grizzlies were able to string together a number of successive shifts in the offensive zone. They followed that up with several defensive zone shifts that earned some appreciative cheers, as the shot clock climbed to seven all in the scoreless first.
Josh Dickinson took the first penalty of the season at 14:01, but Hunter Miska made a number of quick saves, including a particularly nice one glove side to keep it scoreless.
Unfortunately, Zack Andrusiak made it 1-0 on the power play, and Idaho struck again quickly thereafter to make it 2-0.
Cole Cassels took a high-stick with 45 seconds to go, and the Grizzlies headed into first intermission with 1:14 of power play coming up.
Utah got a shot on the advantage to start the second, but were otherwise unable to set up until Yuri Terao snuck past everyone following the power play. Tomas Sholl turned his attempt aside, as well as a big shot from Tischke.
Ryan Black took a hooking call about 4:30 into the second, and Molino followed him to the box on a tripping call, but Utah successfully killed both.
Tischke and Keegan Kanzig headed off to the box very shortly thereafter for matching unsportsmanlike conduct minors as the game got chippy. Travis Barron got a look, and Miska made another few saves.
Dickinson drew a power play of his own about half-way through the second, and Travis Barron scored Utah’s first goal of the season—a tap in from Brandon Saigeon.
Cassels drew a power play shortly thereafter, but Idaho killed it off, and scored again out of the box with 5:16 to go. Nine seconds later, Patrick McGrath dropped the gloves with Kanzig despite giving up a good seven inches and nearly 50 pounds lighter. Both were sent off for fighting.
Molino created some buzz with under two to go, showing off a sweet shot and some nice, crisp passing, and Terao drew a late power play, but after 40 the Grizzlies continued to trail.
They were unable to get anything going on the power play, but at 1:44, Terao slid the puck past Tomas Sholl to put the Grizzlies back within one. Idaho took a delay of game penalty shortly thereafter, and Cassels nearly had his first of the season, but only just missed beating Sholl.
Barron had a big shift, but it culminated in a penalty, and the loudest boo from the fans all night. The penalty put Utah on the 5-on-3 for 1:36, but the killers went to work with a will, and between a big block from Richart, and a good stick from Yao among other things, the Grizzlies returned to full strength.
Utah picked up some momentum heading towards the final five minutes, but although they got some offensive zone cycling going, they remained unable to challenge Sholl.
Utah pressed more strongly in the third, but a soft roughing call on Cassels put them back in the box with a bit over three to go.
The Grizzlies returned to full strength after a strong kill, and pulled Miska for the extra skater, but they weren’t able to beat the clock. So the season begins with a 3-2 loss, and quite a scuffle post-buzzer, but there were definitely some positives to take away from it.
The third period was by far the best of the lot, with Utah establishing some zone time, and showing more cohesion than in the previous two periods.
Although Miska gave up three goals, he otherwise looked solid in net. You can see that all the pieces are there, but they just haven’t quite worked out how to make them all mesh just yet.
We chatted with Richart after the game about the captaincy, and the new team.
“It feels good, it’s an honor,” he said. “Great organization from top to bottom. Learned a lot from the guys before me, especially Zahn last year. He’s a great leader and he kind of took me under his wing last year. To follow him is a big honor.”
The season has barely begun, but Richart already likes how the team is coming together, both on and off the ice.
“It’s early, but a lot of the guys are gelling well We struggled a little bit in the first there, but I thought as the game went on we were feeling each other out. Outside the locker room, guys are hanging out, we’re a pretty close group. It’s fun to be around the guys, and I think everyone feels that way.”
Both Richart and Head Coach Tim Branham emphasized fact that while there’s still plenty of work to be done, they like where the team is headed.
“We started a little slow, it’s the first game, long season, we just got to get our legs going, be confident in one another. I think we’re kind of trying to do a little bit too much right now,” Richart said. Going forward “so just to build off that third period, we’ve just gotta play that way the whole game.”
“As the game went on, we got better,” Branham said. “We’ve gotta learn from that. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Definitely happy with the way we ended the game.”
“We’re learning how to play together,” he added. “We still have a lot of guys we put into the lineup that didn’t play preseason with us, then by the third period we were playing our game. We were keeping things a little more simple, I think the first two periods we were trying to beat guys one-on-one instead of driving wide and keeping things simple. Supporting the puck, creating two-on-ones, that kind of thing.
“Definitely a few things we need to clean up. I thought the penalty kill was ok, we could be better there. I thought as the game went on we were much better up ice. Power play had chances, we hit a couple of posts there in the second period, could have been different. But that’s a good team, it’s always a good team, they’ve got good defense, good goaltending, you can’t beat those guys one-on-one, you gotta play as a team against them.”
Fortunately, as the first pre and regular season games have shown, the Grizzlies have some good goaltending of their own. Of Hunter Miska and Mason McDonald, Branham said:
“We’ve got two really good goaltenders. Hunter’s played in the NHL, he’s a good goaltender. He moves really well, he’s got a great attitude, Mason’s the same thing. Mason’s a little bigger, and takes up a lot more of the net, and he’s got a great attitude as well.”
“He’s just so confident, so poised,” Richart concluded, speaking of Miska, “You know what you’re gonna get out of him every night. He plays the puck well, he’s talking, he makes the big saves, he’s a great goalie.”
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard