After three long, but successful, weeks on the road, the Grizzlies finally returned home, getting reinforcements in the form of Tim McGauley and Ty Lewis. The team wore Batman jerseys with the team’s nicknames (both real and invented) on the back. Martin Ouellette made his 21st start, while the return of both McGauley and Lewis meant that Brandon Saigeon sat out.
The game got off to a great start for the Grizzlies, as Rapid City took two penalties in quick succession, and Yuri Terao made them pay for it on the back-half at 3:27. Mitch Maxwell and Jack Jenkins got the assists.
Ouellette made a big save, and then Eric Williams was sent to the box for interference, followed rapidly by Taylor Richart. Utah killed off the two man disadvantage, and maintained both shot and score superiority.
McGauley leveled Myles McGurty, and drew a crowd, eventually being sent to the box for boarding on a very delayed call.
Utah continued to hold the lead in both shots and goals into the final five of the first. Josh Anderson threw a thunderous hit, and Tanner Karty took exception, dropping the gloves. Both were sent to the room to cool their heels for the final 4:58 of the period.
Griffen Molino had two great attempts in close on Gordie Defiel, but he got taken down, and Defiel made both saves.
Utah continued to pepper the Rush with shots, picking up 12 to Rapid City’s 5 with just over two to go.
Joe Wegwerth got shot number thirteen, and then answered the bell against Brennan Saulnier shortly thereafter.
At the end of a highly eventful first period, Utah retained the 1-0 lead, shots 13-5 in their favor.
The second period began with a fair amount of Rush zone time, but no shots, and Anderson and Karty were released before anything changed.
Utah got the first shot of the period, but in general, their feet kept getting ahead of their hands.
Molino’s hands certainly didn’t get away from him at 8:21, however, as he used his reach to hold on to the puck around a defender, and then swung it over Defiel’s head for his 21st of the year. Lewis got the primary assist, while McGauley got the secondary.
Utah didn’t stop there, extending the shot lead, and getting another goal from Josh Dickinson at 12:58 from Richart and Ryan Wagner.
By the fifteen minute mark, shots were 23-9 for the Grizzlies, and if Ouellette hadn’t made a couple of really nice saves the few times he was tested, it would have been pretty easy to forget that a very good goalie was in the net at all.
Rapid City challenged that a little as time went on, but except for a scuffle between Peter Tischke and Karty after a hit on Lewis, the end of the period maintained the status quo.
Second intermission saw shots 25-13 for the Grizzlies, with 45 seconds left on the offsetting penalties to Tischke and Karty.
The Rush came into the third with more jump than heretofore, but missed the net, or were met by Ouellette or the Utah defense. After that, however, Utah returned the favor in spades.
By the half-way point, the Grizzlies had firmly re-taken control of the game, hitting thirty shots by the 10 minute mark.
Wagner had a glorious offensive zone shift, topped off by a perfect set up, and Maxwell JUST missed spinning the puck into a gaping net.
Chris Leibinger stood Garret Klotz up at the Utah blue line, and was probably fortunate that Klotz didn’t look particularly interested in really dropping the gloves. Both got two minutes at 11:57.
Klotz got a borderline tripping call with under five to go, but the Rush were unable to cleanly complete a pass for almost the entirety of the penalty. With 40 seconds or so to go, the Rush pulled their goalie, and scored on the multiple man advantage.
With two to go, they again pulled their goalie, but were unable to close the gap, giving Utah the 3-1 win, shots 31-23 for the Grizzlies.
Ouellette picked up his 16th win and first star honors, while Terao and Maxwell took second and third.
“You know, I’m really proud of the group right now,” Tim Branham said after the game. “When you bring back McGauley and Lewis — and I know, they’re good players, but we just spent two games without them in a different game plan — they come back in and it’s like they never left, everyone picks up where they left off, other people accept different roles. When you add two high-skilled players like that, two other guys are going to take a back seat, which means it’s gonna be a trickle down effect. We’ve got a great group of guys, guys that accept whatever role they’re put in. They just want to win. Really proud of them for playing a complete game today. That was bigger to me than anything because Rapid City is a tough team. They try to come in and play physical and play hard, and we always have problems with them, have fits, and I think the guys did an excellent job playing between the whistles and playing a good physical, yet skilled, puck possession game.”
While there is certainly no doubt that the level of skill on this team is high, it’s their relentless willingness to work hard that’s set them apart so far.
“Their mindset is different” said Branham, “They have a hard working mindset instead of just a skilled game mindset. You know the old cliche, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. But when you can have talent that works hard, it’s a dangerous thing. We know come playoff time, it’s going to be a tough brand of hockey, so we want to make sure we’re used to playing that style and you throw our skill into the mix and good things happen.”
While the Grizzlies’ speed and high-intensity approach have contributed to their success, they have played a lot of games with a lot of travel lately, and while the travel is decreasing in the coming weeks, the number of games certainly isn’t. So how is the team preparing both for the short term and the big picture?
“We got to be careful here now. We played so much hockey lately, and we’ve been on the road, they’re tired. Even a day off is a travel day, you know, and being able to sustain that energy like they are is huge. So we’re trying to manage that, making sure that we do have enough energy to be able to compete at a high level, and the level that we want to compete at. We’re not measuring ourselves to the other teams, we’re measuring ourselves to ourselves, and we want to be the best team that we can possibly be.”
It’s a management challenge, for sure, but Dickinson also sees it as good practice for the playoffs.
“Come playoffs you’re playing every other night/every night,” he said, “So I mean, it’s a good warm-up for us and it’s good to see what we’re made of and how we respond to it, and the night-in-night-out games is what is going to take in the playoffs, so it’s it’s good.”
And while long road trips are difficult, even late road trips like this one also allow teams to gel together. “Obviously it’s later in the season here, so you’re already close with the guys,” Dickinson added, “But when you’re on a road trip for a long time you’re spending every hour with the guys so you get to know everyone a lot better–it’s where you really find each other and it makes it easier. You kind of get in a groove and you just know more about each other so it’s nice.”
With both the need to manage energy, and that playoff goal in mind, the fact that the offense is clicking on all cylinders rather than being carried by one line or guy at a time is a big help.
“With any given night, we’ve got a bunch of guys that step up,” Branham said. “Lewis and McGauley and Molino have done a really good job for a long stretch, but now you’ve got Wagner and Dickinson, and Wegwerth is back in the mix, and Maxwell scored, I don’t know how many game winning goals for us over that stretch. Then you’ve got Jenkins who’s just a motor. He’s our motor. He’s the one that does everything right and plays hard and doesn’t get any accolades for it. He is so important to our team.
“Our D are learning to compete in the tough areas because they’ve got a lot of ability,” he continued, “They’ve got a lot of ability to move the pocket and things like that. So we’re starting to come together. We want to learn lessons through success. So far, we’ve been able to do that, and definitely proud of this group for for sticking with it.”
Speaking of defense, while the return of Davis and Anderson has filled out what was once a rookie-heavy blue-line, the rookie defenders no longer look like rookies.
“What can you say,” Branham said of his defensive core, “They stuck with it, definitely, you know, maybe early on some of the goals were going in a little bit too easy, maybe. And you can get down and frustrated, but they stuck with the game plan. We’ve worked with them after practice and video and things of that nature. But the biggest thing is just the attitude. Their attitude is a professional attitude. They want to get better every day, and they want to learn. When you’re at this level, if you’ve gotten to this level, you’ve got something in the toolbox, you’ve got a bunch of tools. When you put on top of it the mix of forwards that they’re playing with, and a great attitude of listening to the coaching staff and they work hard every day — they work harder in practice than they do in games, this whole group, it’s unbelievable — when you’ve got that kind of combination, the sky’s the limit. So you know, hopefully we can continue to play well. I know there’s dips and valleys sometimes, but if we can continue to play well going into playoffs some good things will happen.”
As mentioned before, the schedule does not get any easier, both in number of games and in opponents, but if they can stay healthy and keep their momentum going, they’ll have had plenty of practice for the post-season.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Berry.