Utah Grizzlies: Don’t Stop Believing

What a ride it’s been.

What a roller coaster of standings points and emotions, of injuries and triumphs this season has been. For every year, and every team, there’s always a narrative. Every regular season has a story. For the 2016-17 Utah Grizzlies, the narrative was confidence.

“We’re very confident.” Phil Pietroniro said in mid January. “We’ve got enough time to move up, and I think teams know we’re on the move. I really think we’re going to get there,” and he was just one voice among many with the same message.

Confidence in the face of adversity. Confidence in the face of one long grind of a season, punctuated with bright stretches of terrific winning streaks and dazzling performances, bracketed by bad bounces, tough losses, and an endless litany of injuries.

There was never any bravado, just a calm certainty that they had what it would take to fight their way into a playoff spot.

From the coach on out, even in the deepest, darkest depths of an awful November and a patchy December, this team believed. Even when it got bad.

And boy did it ever get bad. The Grizzlies went 9-16-1-1 before Christmas, including a nine-game losing streak between November 18th and December 4th that saw them nosedive from atop the Mountain Division to well out of the playoffs.

There were games where they played well, and couldn’t buy a bounce or a goal, games where the hockey gods seemed to mock them as opposing goalies made impossible save after impossible save. Of course, there was the occasional game where the entire team was terrible, but every team has those, and despite everything, those games remained the exception rather than the rule.

On January 6th, the Grizzlies were 14 points out of a playoff spot with key pieces like Erik Higby and Colin Martin out of the lineup with injuries. But they still hadn’t given up.

That’s when the season turned around, though things certainly didn’t get any easier.

On January 21st Utah was at the front end of a seven-game winning streak, only to have their blue line decimated by injury. By mid February, they were only three points out, but had only three healthy defensemen in the lineup. Yet they never packed it in, despite some overwhelming adversity. Forwards played defense, defenders played forward, and Tim Branham rebuilt nearly all of his blue line, and parts of his forward group on the fly.

In March they’d clawed back to within five of Alaska, only to be seemingly derailed by a brutal home stand against Colorado. But they pulled themselves together, and proceeded to win six of the next seven games.

Whether it was in individual games – like the one in Rapid City where Ralph Cuddemi scored two goals in less than a minute to force overtime in January, the brutal short-handed victory in Alaska in February, or their crazy four goal comeback also against Alaska in March – or in the season as a whole, the Grizzlies showed their resilience and their fortitude.

And now here they stand, having gone 22-12-3-1 since January. It may have taken them until the eleventh hour to secure their playoff berth, but they’re here. For the tenth straight season, the Grizzlies are in the hunt for the Kelly Cup.

Against all odds, they made it.

Technically, there may have been nothing at stake in Saturday’s game, with Utah’s playoff spot clinched, and the Mavericks eliminated from contention days earlier, but neither team packed it in.

Garrett Haar sat this one out, as did Colin Martin, after going rib first into the goal post on Friday. Erik Higby remained sidelined while Travis Howe drew back in, and Cam Reid made his return to the lineup for the first time since February 24th.

Utah got two of the first three shots, and Kevin Boyle was sharp in his sixth straight start. There were very few whistles, and the puck bounced quite a bit. One of those bounces found its way from the stick of Dane Fox and into the back of the net at 6:10. Just moments later, Boyle made an absolutely phenomenal save along the goal line to keep the score 1-0 as the Grizzlies seemed to ease off the gas briefly through the middle of the frame.

Boyle continued to be the Grizzlies’ best player early, but gradually Utah got their skates under them. Jon Puskar just narrowly missed tying the game up with just about six minutes to go, off a terrific shift with Travis Howe and C.J. Eick.

With about four minutes to go, things got exciting. Howe and Jacob Doty dropped the gloves right off the faceoff. After a lengthy tilt, Howe eventually went down, and both combatants got two for removing their helmets in addition to their five for fighting.

Ralph Cuddemi got a beautiful wrap around attempt followed up by a net crashing effort by Eick and Puskar, but Missouri’s Josh Robinson continued to hold the fort.

After a pretty disjointed first period, Utah led in shots 16-12, but Missouri held the 1-0 lead.

The Grizzlies picked up right where they left off to start the second, Puskar making it 1-1 from Cuddemi and Gabriel Verpaelst at 1:36. On the other end, Boyle continued to answer the call. Cuddemi and Eick got a nice two-on-one, as that line, backed by Tim Daly and Phil Pietroniro, had a strong shift in the offensive zone.

With about fifteen minutes left, Verpaelst was hit up high, went down in distress, and in the aftermath of the hit, the Mavs went up 2-1.

With 14:37 to go, Pietroniro made a nice pass to Puskar, who passed to Eick, who threw the puck on net. The goal horn went off, and the Grizzlies celebrated, but it was ruled no goal. Needless to say, the 8,874 fans in attendance were less than pleased.

On the very next shift, Erik Bradford scored for real at 5:40, tipping in Rob Mann’s point shot, making it 2-2, and giving Mann his first pro point. Brassard got the secondary assist, giving him four points in the last five games, and the crowd went absolutely wild.

Just about a minute later, Cuddemi sprang Eick, and C.J. beat out the Missouri defensemen, driving across the crease to go five hole for his ninth of the year. Cuddemi got his second assist of the night, while Pietroniro, who started the play, got the other helper.

Immediately after that, Howe and Doty dropped the gloves again, and had yet another marathon bout. Both got another two and five for fighting and removing their helmets. Boyle was called upon to make another phenomenal save two-on-one on the shift after that, much to the frustration of the Mavericks.

Utah began to really get going after the half-way mark, turning the offensive zone into a shooting gallery as they kept the puck in the zone through multiple successive shifts.

The Grizzlies drew the first power play of the night with at 14:35, but scarcely had the power play commenced than Daly was assessed a holding the stick penalty, evening play up at four a side.

Michael Pelech took a roughing call and then a ten-minute misconduct immediately afterwards, putting the Grizzlies down 4-on-3 for 1:23, then a brief 5-on-3. However, Utah’s penalty kill handled the situation, and escaped unscathed, thanks in part to Missouri clinging to the periphery, and to the efforts of Boyle and the defenders.

At the end of an eventful second period, Utah led 3-2, and held the narrow 24-23 advantage in shots as well.

The third period did not get off to an auspicious start, as Conner Bleackley scored a grand total of 58 seconds into the frame to tie it up.

Fortunately, the Grizzlies responded.

At about the nine minute mark, Pietroniro led a beautiful up-ice rush, fired a shot on net, and Eick batted the rebound in past Robinson for his tenth of the year. Puskar got the secondary assist, giving all three players multiple point games.

Utah continued to manage the puck well through the frame, and were rewarded with 6:16 left to go when Larraza’s point shot went to Bradford, and Daly put away the rebound. The goal was Daly’s 10th of the season, and Bradford’s assist gave him a multi-point game as well.

When the final buzzer of the regular season sounded, Utah led 5-3, and outshot Missouri 37-26.

On the second of two fan appreciation nights, the game was nothing if not a crowd-pleaser. It might not have been the best from a pure hockey stand point, but it had something of everything. There were good goals, bad goals, called off goals, fights, huge saves, some nifty, nifty plays, an absolutely electric crowd, and multi-point games from five different players. Puskar and Bradford both had a goal and an assist, Pietroniro and Cuddemi picked up two assists each, while C.J. Eick closed the regular season as he opened it, with two goals. And, of course, Boyle continued to be a difference maker in net, turning aside 23 out of 26 shots.

Travis Howe was named first star of the game, earning a deafening ovation from the crowd, while Eick and Puskar were the well deserving second and third stars.

It was a fitting end to a remarkable season.

“It’s one of those games that’s kind of tough,” C.J. Eick said after the game. “because you want to go into playoffs playing the right way with the right mentality. But at the same time you know that the spots already locked up, in the back of your mind you’re thinking you don’t want to get hurt, you don’t want to take any injuries on the night. It definitely made for a loose, fast paced game”

Looking back on the season, and the team’s overall attitude, Eick continued, “We knew what kind of team we had. A couple of those runs where we had some losses, we were playing well, we just weren’t getting the bounces, we were finding ways to lose games. But we knew that if we stuck with the process, we’d get back with the winning side, and that’s what happened.”

Tim Branham’s thoughts on the team’s performance were in a similar vein.

“I thought it was really energetic from both sides. I thought it was a good game. Definitely liked our energy, I thought we were playing well even though we got behind early. They worked hard, got a lucky bounce. I thought we were playing some good hockey. We really took over the last half of that 1st period and got a lot of shots on net and then out third period was good, using our speed and pushing them back on their heels, just get more pressure on the goaltender and knew we would break the dam.”

“I definitely believed in this group along,” Branham said when asked to reflect on the season as a whole. “I knew some changes had to be made and some tough decisions had to be made up front, trading some guy away that we did not want to, [that’s] just the nature of the business with the amount of injuries that we had. You gotta give the boys props, you gotta give them credit, they battled through and they wanted to get in. Had to do it by winning, and I thought they did a tremendous job at sticking together, scoring the goals when they had to. Winning that 5 and 0 on that road trip was massive. You really gotta give the guys credit, they did an amazing job and they deserved to celebrate a little bit here with the fans, and then the real work begins, that’s for sure.

“The position that we were at in January, after a real tough stretch, winless in nine, to be able to pull though, battle through, that month of February was really important. We got to play the teams in our division and close the gap a little bit there in Alaska, and then obviously that last road trip going 5 and 0 was big. It’s a character group. They know what it takes to win and its just a matter of having people in that lineup on a consistent basis getting some chemistry, and bringing in some new D-men. We had to revamp the D-core after it was decimated so it was good. The boys never said die, found a way to get the job done, its huge. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us right now and we gotta make sure we’re ready.”

The battle for the playoff spot is over, but the war is only just begun. The Grizzlies will face the reigning Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans against whom they were 0-2-1-1 this season.

“We know what we’re up against. They won a lot of championships here in a row, they got some guys on their team who know how to win, but so do we. We gotta make them play defense. They went out and got a lot of high end talent there at the deadline. We gotta make sure that we’re in their face, not giving them time to make plays, and make them play defense. We’ve been saying puck possession all year, when we have the puck their team cants score so, we gotta make sure that we stick to that philosophy and see if we can’t frustrate them a little bit and take it one game at a time.”

It’s a tall task, to be sure, but Utah is very familiar with those by now, and if we’ve learned anything from the regular season, it’s this.

Don’t ever, ever count the Grizzlies out when there’s still time for a comeback.

 

Photo courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies

Utah Grizzlies: Coming in Hot

(The recap from Wednesday night’s game is coming soon! Apologies for the delay! Life caught up with me there…)

The Utah Grizzlies have returned from their most recent road, and come into the final three games of the season a perfect 5-0.

After beating Colorado twice in their own barn, and picking up a win in the first of three games against Rapid City, Utah continued to pick up steam.

Kevin Boyle once more manned the net on Friday night, and Tim Daly returned to the roster after a two game stint in the AHL.

Gabriel Verpaelst scored the game’s opening goal at 1:55 in the first for his first goal with the Grizzlies, and then Boyle held the fort as Utah struggled a little on the defensive side of things. Mathieu Aubin drew the first power play of the game with 4:37 to go in the frame as Mike Monfredo put him into the boards by the benches and was sent off for roughing. The power play was unable to capitalize, however, and after 20 minutes, Utah led 1-0 despite being outshot 8-6.

Scarcely had the second period begun than Boyle was called upon to make a pair of huge saves, but Rapid City would eventually tie it up as Ryan Walters capitalized on some more slightly sketchy defense at 5:53. However, the tie did not last very long. Michael Pelech scored his 19th of the season at 9:26, with assists from Aubin and Austen Brassard.

Pelech took a high-sticking minor about a minute later, but Terrence Wallin high-sticked Daly less than a minute after that, to negate the power play. The Grizzlies didn’t score on the four-on-four, or the ensuing (and brief) power play that followed, though Daly came painfully close.

In the end, though, it didn’t much matter, as Pelech scored his 20th from an incredibly tight angle from Pietroniro and Aubin to give Utah the 3-1 lead. With Pelech’s second goal of the night marked the third time in five games that he has picked up at least two points, and the Grizzlies now have four players who have hit the 20 goal mark.

Zac Larraza got a beautiful chance later in the period, but was robbed blind by Adam Morrison. With just 34 seconds to go in the period, Pelech got involved in a scuffle with Hunter Fejes, and they both received two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct as the second came to an end.

After two periods, the shots were 19-18 for the Rush, and Utah held a fairly comfortable 3-1 lead.

Martin Nemcik took a penalty in the early stages of the third, and Boyle made an absolutely gorgeous windmill save on the ensuing penalty kill, but nothing much of note occurred until about the halfway point. Brassard and Pelech tangled with Riley Weselowski, and all three players were sent to cool their heels for two minutes.

The Grizzlies killed off the penalty, and at 14:54, Larraza made it 4-1 with assists from Daly and Garrett Haar. The goal was Larraza’s 6th of the season, and his thirteenth point in eleven games.

Unfortunately, with 2:06 to go, Triston Grant made it 4-2 in a wild scramble in front of the net, but when the Rush pulled their goalie, Aubin scored into the empty net to ice away the game.

Pelech and Larraza were named the well-deserved first and third stars of the game, and Boyle made 31/33 saves in his second straight start.

 

Saturday’s game was a wild one right out of the gate as Travis Howe and Anthony Collins dropped the gloves less than two minutes into the first. Barely a minute later, Verpaelst and Weslowski dropped the gloves, and a little over a minute after that, C.J. Eick made it 1-0 with assists from Haar and Brassard.

Colin Martin took a cross-checking penalty at 9:14, but the Grizzlies penalty kill took care of it, thanks in large part to some terrific saves by Boyle.

But the shenanigans weren’t nearly over yet.

Collins and Verpaelst dropped the gloves at 12:28, both earning their second fights of the night.

Unfortunately, Ryan Walters scored on the ensuing 4-on-4 to tie the game up at one. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and with 5:56 to go, a pileup occurred along the boards. Once the dust settled,  Howe and Monfredo were in the box for fighting, joined by Pietroniro for roughing, and Grant for roughing and crosschecking.

Utah wasn’t able to capitalise on the power play, but right as it ended, Erik Bradford made it 2-1 for Utah with assists from Jon Puskar and Colin Martin.

 

Barely a minute later, Puskar was taken off a breakaway, and got a penalty shot, but was unable to beat Luke Siemens.

After 20 shots were 9-8 for Utah, who led 2-1.

Bradford nearly made it 3-1 with 17:54 to go, and a lovely play by Howe to slow the game down led to Puskar drawing a penalty shortly thereafter. Larraza scored his fifth goal in four games at 4:31, while Martin and Bradford drew the assists.

Despite holding a two goal advantage, the lead never exactly felt safe, and with 5:51 to go in the second, the Rush made it 3-2. Martin nearly picked up his second point of the game on a wrap-around attempt in the dying moments of the period, but after 40 the score remained 3-2.

Martin Nemcik began the third playing shifts at forward in place of Travis Howe, who played little (or not at all) through the remainder of the game. The Grizzlies played a much better game in the third — perhaps their best of the entire series against Rapid City, allowing not a single shot through the first 13 or so minutes of the period, including on the penalty kill.

Haar took the only other penalty of the game at 14:58, but Utah killed it off, and with just under a minute left in the game, Martin scored his 22nd of the year into the empty net.

Martin and Bradford were named first and second stars of the game, each with a goal and two assists, and Larraza could well have joined them, as he had a multi-point night, picking up a goal and an assist as well.

The win put the Grizzlies in sole possession of the final playoff spot in the mountain division, and saw them close out one of their most successful road trips to date.

Utah will close out the season against the Missouri Maveriks, and they hold their playoff destiny in their own hands.

Image courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies

Utah Grizzlies: A Taste of Redemption

With eight games to go in the season, Utah looks to continue their tradition of closing out the year on the high note. Branham elected to start Rob Nichols, signed out of the University of Connecticut in his pro debut, while Erik Higby returned to defense with Daly in the AHL.

Both teams got chances early, while Nichols held the fort. The top line of Zac Larraza-Erik Bradford-Ralph Cuddemi looked terrific in the opening five minutes, as the Grizzlies picked up seven of the first eleven shots of the game.

Utah drew the first penalty as Teigan Zahn went to the box for roughing at 9:31, and then just moments later, Gabriel Verpaelst was taken down in the offensive zone, and Cam Maclise went to the box for high-sticking. Higby made it 1-o after a nice shift for Utah, while Garrett Haar and Larraza got the assists.

The rest of their power play looked much improved, getting a few more chances before the Eagles returned to full strength.

The Grizzlies continued to play well, though they did occasionally get caught in their own zone, where they did a good job of helping out their rookie goalie.

With 3:07 to go, Austen Brassard continued his strong play, scoring on a tight angle shot, with assists from Michael Pelech, and Mathieu Aubin, and Haar drew a penalty in the final seconds of the period.

At the end of 20, Utah led 2-0, and outshot Colorado 10-8.

Utah opened the second period with 1:41 left in their power play, but while they got a few shots, so did Colorado, and the Eagles returned to full strength.

C.J. Eick took the Grizzlies’ first penalty of the game, a holding call after he got tangled up with Sean Zimmerman in the offensive zone, but Utah had no trouble keeping the Eagles chasing the puck out o the zone. Aubin took a goaltender interference and Bradford made it 3-0 on a gorgeous short-handed rush.

Unfortunately, Phil Pietroniro took a delay of game penalty just seconds after that, and the Eagles made it 3-1 on a tick-tack-toe play. They scored yet again just moments after that on the 5-on-4 to make it 3-2, and all the momentum the Grizzlies had built up was gone.

Matt Register took a slashing penalty on Nichols, who had to leave the game as a result. Ryan Faragher took over in nets, and the Grizzlies went on the power play. They were unable to convert, and Pietroniro and Harrison took matching minors at 16:02.

The game got a bit out of control as Cuddemi boarded Zahn, and then Jackson Hauk jumped Cuddemi. Brassard, Verpaelst, and Michael Sdao all got involved, and once the dust settled, Cuddemi was given five minutes for boarding, and a misconduct, while Hauk, Sdao, and Verpaelst got two each for roughing.

At the end of 40, Utah maintained the 3-2 lead, but were outshot 24-17, and staring down a three minute penalty kill, and without Cuddemi.

The Grizzlies killed off the three minute Cuddemi major, and Bradford nearly got a second short-handed breakaway, but was not quite able to elevate the puck over Kent Simpson’s pads.

Eick made it 4-2 at 5:32 with assists from Higby and Travis Howe, giving Higby his second point of the game, and Howe his fourth point of the year.

Faragher made some big saves to preserve the two goal lead, and Brassard scored his second of the night into the empty net to give the Grizzlies the 5-2 win.

Haar once again had a great game, as did Brassard, who now has nine points in the last ten games. It was also an encouraging outing, as the entire team looked better than they have at any point in the Colorado series for a complete sixty minutes. Now, if they can keep that momentum rolling, they should do pretty well.

Unfortunately, it has since been announced that Cuddemi has been suspended indefinitely for his hit on Zahn (who has since been placed on reserve), and Nichols has been released to return to UConn to finish school after being injured – though he returns having won his first professional game. So not only will Utah have to fight for their playoff spot without arguably their best defenseman in Daly, but without their leading goalscorer as well.

There is some good news though. With Alaska’s loss to to Rapid City, and Missouri’s win, Utah remains one behind Missouri, but only three behind Alaska for the final playoff spot.

Utah will need to dig in and overcome adversity to finish the season in a playoff spot, but they are no strangers to adversity this year, and have proved on several occasions that giving up on the Grizzlies is unwise.

After all, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Utah Grizzlies: Total Domination

After last game, Tim Branham was confident that the Grizzlies would be ready for game two against Alaska, and they absolutely were, turning in what was perhaps their strongest and most complete game of the season against  a very good team – to the great delight of the 6,026 fans in attendance.

Utah came out flying, playing smart with the puck, and working relentlessly to get it back whenever they lost it – just as Branham had discussed the night before.  It took until about the five minute mark for either team to register a shot, but then the Grizzlies got the first four straight as they monopolized possession of the puck.

They rapidly picked up shots five through seven, and the number one line of Michael Pelech, Erik Bradford, and Ralph Cuddemi got their first of the game as Pelech put the puck home at 6:04 after a series of rebounds.

The Grizzlies didn’t take their foot off the pedal after the first five, and Alaska struggled to even gain Utah’s zone. Ten minutes into the period, Alaska had yet to register a shot, Puskar almost got in alone on a breakaway, and the Grizzlies drew the first power play of the night.

Unfortunately Alaska scored twice short handed on the same penalty to put them up 2-1 on three shots. However, the Grizzlies did not let that rattle them, as they came back with a vengeance, going right back to the strong play that had served them well before the first man advantage.

Alaska got called for hooking against Phil Pietroniro, and the Grizzlies’power play got a second chance, just under fifteen minutes into the period.

Cuddemi missed the wide open net, but Alaska put the puck over the boards on the ensuing clearing attempt, sending the Grizzlies to a 5-on-3 for 1:21. The Grizzlies set up strongly, but were unable to muster a shot on the two man advantage.

Tim Daly threw a big shot on net on the  following 5-on-4, and this time, Cuddemi made no mistake, tying it up at 17:23. Daly drew the first of what would eventually be three primary assists, and Cam Reid got the secondary.

The Grizzlies continued to press through to the end of the period, camping out in the Aces’ zone, and trying to capitalize off Daly’s shots from the point. After 20, the Grizzlies outshot Alaska to the tune of 14-5, and had vastly outplayed them.

Less than a minute into the second, Pelech took a holding call, but Utah killed it off, even getting a short-handed attempt from Cuddemi. Alaska held on to the advantage for a few shifts following the power play, but Utah came back, and Bradford got a pair of chances on Carr.

At 4:16 Martin Nemcik laid a big hit, but was sent to the box for tripping. On the ensuing penalty kill, the speedy duo of Cuddemi and Bradford got in again on one end, and Faragher made some strong saves on the other to kill it off.

Alaska looked a little stronger through the rest of the period, but Utah kept skating and working, and Alaska continued to struggle to get shots through swarms of Grizzlies, who also made it difficult for them to maintain the zone.

With roughly five minutes left in the period, Jon Puskar and Taylor Richart both laid glass-rattling hits, Faragher made a great save, and Alaska took a hooking penalty. Utah pressed the man advantage hard, but the Aces escaped.

Shortly thereafter, Pietroniro dropped the gloves with Ben Lake and got the take-down. Both players were sent to the locker room, and a few minutes later, Colin Martin beat Kevin Carr to take the 3-2 lead, with the assists going to Richart and Aubin.

Just moments thereafter, the Grizzlies drew another power play, finishing the period on the man advantage, outshooting Alaska 28-13, and holding a well deserved 3-2 lead.

Like most very short early power plays, the Grizzlies 25 second man advantage didn’t accomplish anything, but through the following two minutes, the Grizzlies carried play, and by the three minute mark, their shot lead increased to 30-15.

C.J. Eick made it a 4-2 game at 3:06 with assists from Navin and Pietroniro.

Alaska took a boarding penalty with 10:11 left in the third as Daniel Moynihan stapled Richart to the boards by the penalty box. Richart was very slow to get up, but remained on the bench, and later returned to the game.

At 9:49, Daniel Moynihan took a boarding penalty against Richart, and on the ensuing power play, Pietroniro’s perfect point shot put the Grizzlies up 5-2, capping off the Gordie Howe hat trick.

Martin and Hunt both took roughing penalties after the Aces mugged Faragher in a net front scrum, and Martin came to his goalie’s defence.

A few minutes later, Pietroniro and Trenz both were sent off with matching slashing calls, but Bradford got in all alone and drew a hooking penalty, and Utah went to a lengthy 4-on-3. A perfect bit of passing eventually put the puck on the stick of Cam Reid, putting the Grizzlies up a convincing 6-2 with just over five minutes left to play.

Eick took a tripping penalty, but the Grizzlies penalty kill kept Alaska scrambling for pucks, and running all the way back to their own zone throughout.

The lethal penalty killing duo of Bradford and Cuddemi kept Alaska on their toes, keeping it a 6-2 game, but with 1:11 left in the game, Alaska made it 6-3. But that was as close as they’d get. The Aces got one last chance on the penalty kill as the clock ticked down, but failed to threaten, and Utah took the win.

If the Grizzlies ever deserved a big win, this was it. Six different players scored, as Pelech, Cuddemi, Martin, Eick, Pietroniro, and Reid all filled the net, and five different players had multiple point games, Reid getting a goal and two assists, Daly getting three assists, Aubin picking up two, and Cuddemi and Pietroniro both picking up a goal and an assist.

Cuddemi’s 18th goal of the season ties him for first in goals among rookies, and Daly’s three points tie him for third in points amongst defensemen.

“We were definitely on it” Pietroniro said of the team’s performance. “We stuck to the game plan from the start, and we never gave up. It shows on the scoreboard, it shows as a win, so it’s a huge confidence boost for us here.”

“We’re very confident” he later added, “We’ve got enough time to move up, and I think teams know we’re on the move. I really think we’re going to get there.”

Of his Gordie Howe hat trick he said: “It’s awesome, it doesn’t happen too often, but I’ll definitely take advantage of it.”

Branham’s thoughts were similar. “I thought we played a really good game” he said, “We talked after the game yesterday, and before the game here how we want to play, the way we need to play in order to have success and climb back in the playoff standings.” He went on to say “It was one of the most complete sixty minutes that we’ve played except for one power play. You gotta tip your hat to the boys, they played a really good game, and they executed our game plan.”

The Grizzlies are still in for an uphill battle in the playoff hunt, but if any team can come roaring up from behind, it’s this one – especially if they keep playing the way they did on Saturday.

Utah will face the Wichita Thunder on Wednesday before squaring off against Danick Paquette and the Tulsa Oilers for back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday.

Utah Grizzlies: Monday Madness

The Grizzlies began a six game home stand with a Monday afternoon game against the Idaho Steelheads. The lineups saw a little bit of tinkering. Erik Bradford and Ralph Cuddemi, the Grizzlies’ two most potent scorers of late, flanked Cam Reid, while Colin Martin took Bradford’s spot beside Michael Pelech and Mathieu Aubin. Kenton Helgesen remained on defence, where the pairings remained as they had in the previous few games.

The game got off a slow start, with not much happening until about half way through the first period, and then everything happened all at once. Idaho struck first at 8:44, but Jon Puskar responded on the very next shift to tie up the game. Unfortunately, on the next shift after that Idaho scored again to make it a 2-1 game with just about ten minutes to go in the period.

The Grizzlies pressured well following the goal, but unfortunately Idaho got in on a two on one, and Anthony Luciani beat Faragher.

Shortly thereafter, Helgesen took an interference penalty, but the Grizzlies’ aggressive penalty kill neutralized the man advantage effectively, even getting a few forays into the offensive zone.

However, At the end of the first, shots were 9-8 for Idaho who also led 3-1.

The Grizzlies got off to a good start in the second period, drawing a power play as Martin got a scoring chance and was hooked in front of the net. Unfortunately, Utah’s power play struggles continued, as Idaho spent at least as much time in the offensive zone as Utah did, and then scored on a 3-on-1 as their penalized player returned to the ice.

About eight minutes into the second, C.J. Eick nearly tipped in a shot by Cuddemi, before the puck came to Taylor Richart who scored his third of the season to cut the deficit in half.

Half way into the period, Eick was taken into the boards at the Idaho bench by Travis Ewanyk, and Banwell came flying in to his defence. Eick and Ewanyk were sent to the box to cool their heels, Howe and Ewanyk jawing the whole way.

With just under seven minutes to go in the period, Pelech laid a nifty hit in the defensive zone to separate Idaho puck carrier from the puck. The play went the other way, and Puskar scored his second of the night making it a 4-3 game.

In the minutes that followed, Faragher made some big saves, and Puskar drew a high-sticking penalty to send the Grizzlies to the power play with about three minutes to go. Utah’s second go at the power play went much better than their first attempt, but they were still unable to make anything of the man advantage.

Faragher was called upon to make some key saves as the period drew to a close, keeping it a one goal deficit heading into the final frame.

Both teams exchanged a series of power plays through the first ten minutes of the period with Martin and Banwell among others getting chances. However, Faragher was also called on to make a few key saves on short-handed attempts.

At 16:44, the Grizzlies completed the comeback, as Brad Navin scored his fourth of the season with assists from Eick and Puskar, giving the third line their third goal of the game.

However, Utah was not out of the woods just yet as first Banwell, then Pietroniro went down. Banwell remained on the bench, and Pietroniro eventually did return.

Neither team was able to draw ahead in the last few minutes of the game, so the game went to overtime, and right off the opening faceoff, there was a slight delay as one of the refs went down. Once play resumed, Reid, Daly, and Bradford all had chances, and with 20 seconds left, Faragher made a key save to keep the game tied, and the Grizzlies drew a power play. It was not enough to break the tie, so the game went to the shoot out, shots 30-28 for Idaho.

Reid shot first, and was the only goal scorer as Philippe Desrosiers beat Cuddemi, and Faragher stopped all three Idaho shooters to give the Grizzlies the 5-4 victory.

Puskar (2G, 1A), Eick (3A), and Navin (1G, 1A) were named the three stars of the game. After being named first star, Puskar was quick to turn the praise to his teammates: “It was really my line. Both goals I had were my forwards getting in, my linemates getting in there, jumping in on the forecheck, that puck’s coming to me in the middle, I just put the final touch on it. That’s all their effort. I’ve got to tip my cap to the guys on the wings that were down there grinding it out.”

Coach Branham also had good things to say about the play of the third line, Faragher, and the game in general. “Puskar’s line was tremendous tonight, obviously we owe them a lot. Fedzy, big saves when he had to, one second left in regulation, that was a crazy hop, he stuck with that one, then got the job done in the shoot out.

“We’re just trying to keep things simple. We’ve got a simple team, we’ve got a smart team. When we keep things simple,  play solid defence, and out-work the opposition, with and without the puck, good things happen ’cause we have enough skill. So with [Puskar] having two tonight, it definitely helps and takes a lot of pressure of those top two lines when your third line is contributing like that, so definitely proud and [Puskar] deserves it. He’s a good player, heart and soul.”

The Grizzlies have had a number of gutsy come-from-behind performances recently, and both Puskar and Branham weighed in on what allows the team to stick with it and go on these big runs to tie the game.

“They’re calm on the bench, they’re positive with each other, whether we’re down or not, it doesn’t matter” said Branham. “We have a lot of confidence right now. We’ve jut got to keep it going.”

“When we’re down, it doesn’t matter now, we grind back. We’re not going to quit.” Puskar said, and later added, “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, it just comes down to effort and execution at this point.”

The next two games against Alaska are crucial, as Branham pointed out: “We’re nine points back, so words can’t describe how big those games are this next weekend. There are four points on the line, you could be within five points of them. They’ve got a tough road. They play us twice, and then they’ve got Idaho and then they have Colorado. We’ve just gotta worry about what we can do each and every game. Right now we’re trending in the right direction, and that’s what you like to see as a coach.”

Both the Friday and Saturday games against Alaska will be played at the Maverik Center at 7 PM.