Fresh off a spectacular road trip, and a quick holiday season, the Grizzlies returned home to host the Tulsa Oilers. With Patrick McGrath called up to Iowa, only J.C. Brassard, Garrett Klotz, and the goalies Brad Barone and Jeff Smith were not in the lineup.
Having suffered only one loss, 3-1 to this same Tulsa team on the road, Utah hoped to erase it from memory with a good performance, and bring their winning ways back home.
After a very short stint in their own zone, the Grizzlies got hustling, picking up the first five shots of the night. Their shooting and puck management led to Ty Lewis’ tenth of the season, which he made look absolutely effortless against Devin Williams at 3:34. The usual suspects in Tim McGauley and Griffen Molino picked up the assists.
There were a couple of close calls about twelve minutes in, but Martin Ouellette turned aside a wrap-around attempt, and then calmly shut the door after a turnover led to a bit of a scramble.
The Lewis-McGauley-Molino line continued to impress with their puck handling and rebound creation as shots hit 7-4 for the Grizzlies, and the period hit the half-way mark.
With so few stoppages in play, the flow of the game was allowed to continue unimpeded, and certainly showed off the Grizzlies’ speed and skill.
Yao had an especially memorable shift as he first flew in from the bench to cut off what was otherwise a one-on-none, and then later on the same shift swiped a puck away from an open net after Ouellette made the initial save, and then lost the puck in a sea of bodies.
Ouellette also continued to impress throughout, and the Travis Barron, Brandon Saigeon, Mitch Maxwell line closed the period out with a multi-shot shift.
After 20, Utah led 1-0, out-shooting Tulsa 12-8.
The Grizzlies drew the game’s first power play at 1;25, following a bit of nice puck-handling from Saigeon. They only picked up one shot, but it didn’t matter, for scarcely had the man advantage ended than Lewis once again made scoring look easy on a play from McGauley.
Shortly thereafter, Yau made a blue-line play from his knees to get the puck up to Lewis. After that, it surprised no one when Lewis passed the puck to McGauley, who hten passed it off to Molino. Williams made the initial save, but Molino backhanded the puck right over the Tulsa goalie to make it 3-0.
Unfortunately, a turnover from Richart eventually led to the Oilers’ first, and only, goal of the game almost immediately afterwards.
Travis Barron and Danny Moynihan got into a scrap at 7:58, Barron getting the better of the exchange, which never quite developed into a full-fledged fight, and Utah killed off the extra two Barron got for slashing.
Williams got a pair of chances just past the 14 minute mark, the first which squeaked just wide of the net, and the second which landed square on the stick of Joe Wegwerth and into the net.
Ouellette made a couple of big saves in the later stages of the period, and Utah drew another power play with under four to go. Although the Grizzlies didn’t actually capitalize on the advantage, it was hard to see their puck movement and think that it looked a little like they were toying with Tulsa.
Barron continued to get opportunities, but not goals, and at the buzzer, Mike McKee turnstiled McGauley, which led to a scuffle with Sasha Larocque and McKee in the thick of it. McKee was assessed a penalty for roughing. As a result, Utah headed into the third up 4-1, out-shooting Tulsa 21-13, and headed to the man-advantage.
The ensuing special teams were underwhelming on both sides, and included the least threatening start to a one-on-none short-handed breakaway ever.
The lacklustre power play was forgotten, however, when just about a minute later, Yao released a big shot on net, and Wegwerth once again tipped the puck home perfectly to put Utah up 5-1.
The game got a little out of hand after that, Wegwerth getting put into the boards, leading to three separate fights. That was more or less when the refs lost control of the game. The fights were all considered rouging calls, and the initial boarding that started it was never called.
On the next shift or so, Zahn dropped the gloves. Zahn got two for slashing, as well as the four and ten both received. The upshot, however was that Utah had nearly a minute of four-on-three to kill.
On the shift after THAT Cam Knight and Mitch Maxwell dropped the gloves, and Maxwell won decisively in a furious bout that was the only one of the game to actually be called a fight. Both got five and a game, and Utah killed off the rest of their penalties.
Both teams got back to the business of playing hockey after that, though the Oilers did take a delay-of-game penalty at 13:57.
Joe Wegwerth completed the natural hat trick with just under three to go, and the Grizzlies avenged their only road loss in decisive fashion. The hat trick earned Wegwerth first star honors, while Lewis’ two goals, and McGauley’s three assists gave them second and third stars respectively. Flying much further under the radar though, were Yao’s two assists, and overall strong play.
Needless to say, Tim Branham was pleased with his team’s effort.
“We came out, we had something to prove. Last game we played against these guys, it was the one game we took off in the last 20. We had a statement to make. We played a good game, I thought Marty still made some big saves back there. That one goal, Pleskach can score. That’s a tough play to even defend. Really proud of how the boys stuck up for each other, policed the game when it wasn’t being policed. Overall, it was a really good effort.”
When asked about his white hot first line, he said, “It’s fun to watch those guys, every shift they’re pretty creative, pretty fast, stuff like that. And they play such a big part of the game, not only power play, they penalty kill, they give the other team fits. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. They play a fast game, and it’s good. It’s what they need to do, what we need them to do, and it’s fun to watch, that’s for sure.”
Yao’s performance also came in for a share of praise. “Very, very good game. Played defense, played forward. He gives you that effort though, he gives you that effort every night. He skates so well, he’s so smart out there. It’s tough. We’ve got a lot of contracted d-men, we’ve got a lot of good defensemen back there, and sometimes rookies gotta bide their time, give you that effort when it’s needed, and he’s done exactly that. He’s been there when we’ve needed that, and he’s a great teammate.”
However, Branham saved most of of his praise for Wegwerth. “He’s doing great.” He said, “We’ve got to understand where he’s coming from. His senior year, last year, his senior year at Notre Dame, I think it was November, December, he broke his leg, and he hasn’t played since then. He comes back out, and breaks his hand when he gets here, then he takes a puck to the mouth, loses teeth six weeks later, and for him to battle the way he has and develop, he’s got a bright future ahead of him, that’s for sure. He’s a big body, he’s tough to handle, he’s tough, he’s got great hand-eye coordination in front of the net, which we saw tonight, and a great human being, so definitely it’s a lot of fun coaching him as well because he’s a sponge out there. He comes from a good program, Jeff Jackson does a good job there at Notre Dame, and Joe’s a byproduct of that.”
The Grizzlies’ offensive game has obviously expanded exponentially recently, but it’s not the only area in which they have improved in the past month or so, something Lewis was quick to point out. “I think our defensive game has come a long way, I feel like we’ve really taken a next step in our d-zone, and our responsibility defensively in the past couple of weeks. Our d-core is really strong, probably one of the most solid d-cores in the league in my opinion, so hopefully we just keep that going.”
“I think everyone is feeling good in the room right now,” he added, when asked about the team’s overall mood, and success. “It’s nice when things go well, and guys are getting the bounces. We’re just trying to take advantage of what we’ve got going here, good mentality in the room, everyone’s prepared to do their job, and things are just working well.”
Wegwerth’s thoughts were similar. “I think it’s a ton of fun. Every night it’s a different guy, it seems like. Everyone is stepping up and doing the little things. It’s not about one person in the room right now, it’s about all of us, and that’s what’s special about it.”
After such a hotly contested game, Saturday’s rematch is certainly going to be one to watch.
Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard.