In Utah’s return to the Maverik center, Chris Leibinger drew back into the lineup in place of Mitch Jones, while Nate Mitton (who was signed again to a standard player contract this morning) also returned. Joel Rumpel once again got the start, while Brendan and Ryans Misak and Walters took opening face-off backed by Taylor Richart and Sam Windle.
Shots were even through the first three minutes, 3-3, but despite that, Idaho kept the puck in the Utah zone for the majority of the of the time.
Rob Mann took a delay of game penalty at 4:16, and Idaho went to the power play. However, the Grizzlies’ defense, and Joel Rumpel gave the home crowd something to cheer for, stopping everything thrown at him.
Idaho continued to keep the Grizzlies in their own end, but that’s not to say that Utah didn’t play hard, earning cheers , and eventually returning play to the Idaho zone for a shift or two.
Cole Ully rang iron, and Walters put a blast over the net, and with nine minutes to go, the score was still 0-0, shots 9-8 for Idaho.
Utah gained momentum, and at 11:38, Brad Navin led a three-on-two rush up ice, and drop-passed to a late charging Leibinger. Leibinger passed to a wide open Austin Ortega, who wired it past Carmine Guerriero to give Utah the 1-0 lead.
Rumpel absolutely stood on his head towards the end of the period, somehow keeping the puck out of the net in an absolutely wild net-front scramble, and after the first period, Utah led 1-0, despite being out-shot 18-9.
The second period was far more even in terms of zone time, but Utah was not quite fast enough to jump on a rebound, and Max French made it 1-1 at 2:04
The tie did not last long though. Michael Pelech gave Utah back the lead at 3:42 from Navin and Ortega. Utah wasn’t done then either. Navin carried the puck into the zone, spun, passed to Richart, and he gave Utah the 3-1 lead.
Misiak was high-sticked at 6:43, and with the power play running down, Walters got the puck at the goal line, and slipped it past Guerriero. The goal spelled the end of his afternoon, and Philippe Desrosiers came on in relief.
Idaho cut the lead in half, however, less than two minutes later, Utah again coughed the puck up in front of Rumpel, and French scored exactly the same goal as he had earlier.
At 16:18 Connor Chatham slashed Rumpel, Walters took exception, and both went to the box, Walters for roughing, and Chatham for slashing.
With a minute to go, Misiak was hooked on a hard drive to the net, and Utah went to the power play. The Grizzlies kept possession of the puck, got a couple of good shots, and Utah went to the locker room up 4-2.
Utah began the third with 1:03 of power play time, but the advantage didn’t register a shot on it’s second half.
Pelech took a cross-checking penalty 1:30 into the third, but thanks to a good kill, and some big saves from Rumpel, it was killed off.
The Grizzlies had another bounce go their way with about five gone in the third, as the puck bounced around the crease, came to rest perilously close to the line, with Rumpel out of position. A Utah player swiped it just far enough out of harm’s way that he was able to get back into position in a massive crowd, and the danger was averted.
Idaho spent a lot of the third in the Grizzlies’ end, but Utah also made them work really hard along the wall and in the corners for the puck, and Rumpel remained a rock-solid last line of defense.
Will Merchant and Leibinger got tied up in the Grizzlies zone at 13:23, and both went to the box, Leibinger for playing without a helmet, and Merchant for holding the stick.
Both teams returned to full strength with no change in score, but with 2:34 to go, a bad bobble at the Idaho blue line led to a two-on-one, and the Steelheads drew within one.
However, despite Idaho pulling Desrosiers for the extra attacker and calling their time out, Utah hung on through the final minutes of the frame to extend their winning streak to three.
After stopping 46/49 shots, Rumpel was the well-deserved first star of the game, and showed all 6,092 fans in attendance just the calibre of goalie he is. Ortega’s goal and two assists got him second star of the game, while Navin’s three assists saw him earn third.
Quite a number of players picked up points in all three games over the weekend. Pelech had two goals and an assist, Navin had two goals and three assists, Misiak four assists, Ortega two goals, four assists, Richart a goal and two assists, and James Melindy with assists in each of the three games. Not only has the team stepped it up offensively, but the defense has also improved vastly in that span, something Rumpel was quick to point out.
“[The puck] looked a little bigger today, that’s for sure,” he said after the game. “But the guys really helped out front, let me see it. I don’t think there were that many screens or rebounds that I had to make, so that was nice.”
“I remember playing against you guys quite a bit, I was always like, ‘this would be a pretty good spot to play’, so I’m excited that I got the opportunity.”
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Rumpel, who is looking forward to the opportunity the homestand will provide to allow him to get settled in: “Feels like I haven’t really had a chance to sit down at all, or get to get to see the city at all, so it’ll be nice to get to know each other here this week, get a few home games in, and get to know everybody a little better.”
When asked about the first star performance of his new goaltender, Tim Branham had nothing but praise. “He’s definitely the reason we won today. I mean, we scored enough goals, but he kept us in there. I thought Idaho brought everything they had. They were tenacious, they won the majority of the battles tonight. We found a way to score goals, we were good on the power play, good on the penalty kill, and our goalie won us the game. We’ve been waiting for that all year, so I’ll take that any time.”
It’s been three games now since Mitch Maxwell, Jake Marchment, Gage Ausmus, and Sam Babintsev joined the club, and they’re moves that have led to immediate results.
“When something bad happens on the bench, we’re confident enough to work through it.” Branham said. “The players that we brought in have done an amazing job of coming in and doing what they’re capable of. The guys that have been here are a little bit on edge. They know that the pressure is on and they need to perform. These last three games have been a world of difference. It’s everything that we’ve been striving for all season. Unfortunately it took a few changes to get there, but I’ll take it.”
But it’s not just the new guys who have stepped up and really gotten going. “Navin’s been great. I don’t know how many points he has in the last fifteen games, but it’s a lot (7 goals, 6 assists, 13 points). Same with Brendan Harms (5 goals, 9 assists, 14 points). Navin’s just playing with a lot of confidence, and good things are happening for him. For both those players, Harms and Navin, it was a struggle early on, but they kept with it, they battled hard, they stayed focused, and right now they’re being rewarded for it.
Ortega’s been good ever since he’s been here. He’s a player who’s pretty special. He has good hands and he competes, he wants to win, so those guys have really carried the load offensively for us.”
Utah looks to extend their winning streak to four against Rumpel’s former team when Jon Puskar and the Wichita Thunder roll into town on Friday night for the first game of Grizzlies Fight Cancer weekend.
Image courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming and staff.