Utah Grizzlies: Unbowed, Unbent, Only Slightly Broken

When the Utah Grizzlies and the Colorado Eagles play, you may fear for the Grizzlies’ lives, but you’ll never be bored. The Eagles are big, they’re nasty, and to top it off, they’re chock full of talent. But the Grizzlies are every bit as skilled, never ones to back down from a fight, and are happy to give as good as they get. As a result, gratuitous penalties and painfully close games are par for the course when these two teams square off. Saturday’s game was no exception to the rule.

After the physical game on Friday night, the Grizzlies were down Eric Springer, Jon Puskar and Taylor Richart. As only Travis Howe and Colin Martin replaced them, the Grizzlies faced an uphill climb, playing short-handed against the meanest team in their division for the second time in as many days.

Shane Walsh opened the scoring for Utah 10:41 into the first period off a nice little drop pass from Tim Daly and Austen Brassard, and then the game took on all the hallmarks of an Eagles-Grizzlies tilt.

Jessey Astles plastered Daly to the boards, and Martin flew in to defend his teammate. Both Astles and Daly would get double minors for roughing, followed just two minutes later by Michael Sdao and Howe, who also got roughing penalties after a scrum in front of the Eagles’ net. Less than a minute after that another Grizzlies’ chance led to another net-front scuffle, and both Brandon McNally and Sean Zimmerman were sent to the box; Zimmerman with a double minor for roughing, and McNally with a minor for slashing.

Though Walsh was again flying on the Grizzlies’ power play, they were unable to capitalize. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Jesse Mychan, one of Colorado’s leading scorers, got in behind Utah’s defence, and tied the game up with 1:44 left in the period.

Less than a minute later, Martin tripped up Teigan Zahn, and the pair dropped the gloves for real, sending Colorado to the power play to end the period. After 20, shots were 8-6 for the Grizzlies, the score 1-1, with 30 penalty minutes already assessed.

The Grizzlies killed off the first-period penalty, but a few minutes later found themselves again on the kill after Daly was sent to the box for hooking. Ryan Faragher stonewalled Mychen, and C.J. Eick, corralling the puck in his own zone, blew into the Eagles’ end and nearly had a breakaway. Although Eick was unsuccessful, Kenton Helgesen followed up Eick’s excellent shift with one of his own, blasting a short-handed point shot through a screen for his first goal of the year.

The rest of the second period was fairly uneventful by way of goals or penalties, but there was no shortage of chances, possibly missed calls (including what should probably have been a couple of Eagles’ penalties against Phil Pietroniro), and general ill will all ’round. The end of the second saw the Grizzlies leading 2-1, and holding the smallest of edges in shots, outshooting the Eagles 17-16.

The pace of the third was good, but neither team was able to muster more than one shot in the opening five minutes. Helgesen had another big shot from the point just after the 10-minute mark, and Faragher smothered the puck on Matt Garbowsky, who nearly managed to sneak past the Grizzlies’ defence. With five to go, shots were 25-24 for the Grizzlies, and they were maintaining the 2-1 lead, but with the Eagles, you can never rest comfortably on such a slim advantage.

With just under three minutes to play in the period, Erik Higby took a slashing penalty, Faragher made some huge saves, and the penalty was killed off. However, with about 30 seconds left in the game, Colorado pulled their goalie and called a timeout. A mere four seconds later, with a swarm of bodies in front of the Utah net, Luke Salazar somehow trickled the puck over Faragher to tie the game up, and a scrum broke out. Both Ralph Cuddemi and Cole Sanford were sent to the box off the ensuing faceoff, and the game went to overtime.

Because of course it did.

A wild five minutes of hockey — in which there were definitely too many men on the ice for both teams at one point, Daly rang a shot off the post, Faragher made a huge save, and the Eagles continued to target Pietroniro — solved nothing, and the game went to the shootout.

Aubin (missed the net), Cuddemi (saved by Lieuwen) and Higby (lost control of the puck) all shot for the Grizzlies, while Faragher stopped Pierro-Zabotel, Garbowsky hit the crossbar, Salazar was robbed by a beautiful toe save, and Mychen too was unable to score for Colorado before Walsh put the game away 3-2 for the Grizzlies.

With the victory, the Grizzlies remain unbeaten at home, improve to 5-1 overall, Faragher has won four straight, and the team finds themselves on top of the Mountain Division. They also improve to 9-3 against Colorado in the regular season over the past two years.

Although Tim Branham, the Grizzlies’ head coach and general manager, had no concrete explanation for why his squad is consistently able to come out on top in such closely contested games against the skilled and nasty Eagles, he did add that “we have big players that play here in Utah, and big players play in big games, and when Colorado is in your building, you better be sure you come ready to play.”

Come to play they certainly did.

Walsh Continues to Shine

Shane Walsh continues to be a force to be reckoned with, scoring the game’s opening and winning goals, and being generally noticeable all over the ice at all times. He now has four goals and two assists over six games, trailing only Jon Puskar in team scoring, and has been named a runner-up for October’s CCM ECHL Rookie of the Month. He was named third star of the game.

First Star Honors

Kenton Helgesen was named first star, and had another terrific night again doing double duty for the short-handed Grizzlies. Coach Branham had nothing but praise for the Ducks’ prospect.

“He’s done tremendous. He’s come a long way from last year. And we’ve utilized him in the front, we’ve utilized him on the back end, he scored a huge goal for us today, he’s played big minutes. He has definitely come to play this year. He’s done a fabulous job.”

The flexibility Helgesen gives the Grizzlies by being able to play forward and defence has been a big benefit to the team in the past two games.

“It’s tough to do,” Branham added. “You have to think differently, so for him to just do that is great. He’s had a great season so far.”

Helgesen now has three points in four games, and is a +2 with three shots.

Firing on all Cylinders

In their six games this season, the Grizzlies have two or more points from all but three of their skaters. Jon Puskar holds the lead with seven points, Walsh has six, and Brassard five.

Even more impressive, there are six players (not counting Samuels-Thomas, alas) who are at or near a point per game. Puskar and Walsh, of course, lead the list, but there are also Colin Martin (1G, 2A in three games), Zac Larraza (1G, 1A in two games), Austen Brassard (1G, 4A in five games) and Helgesen (1G, 2A in four).

Combine the team’s excellent scoring contributions with Faragher’s goaltending (which saw him named one of the runners-up for October’s goalie of the month) and you have a very strong team.

The Grizzlies begin a grueling stretch of four games in five nights in two different cities starting tonight in Tulsa before playing Friday and Saturday in Wichita, and Sunday back in Tulsa.

Utah Grizzlies: A Scrappy Affair


After two long weeks, the Grizzlies are finally back home. It’s been too long.

With Kevin Boyle and Zac Larazza called up to the AHL, Ryan Faragher was backed up by Ryan McKay, Kenton Helgesen drew back into the lineup, and new acquisition Ralph Cuddemi also made his Grizzlies debut.

The last time the Grizzlies and Eagles met, Utah swept Colorado in the first round of the playoffs  in a matchup that was as tightly contested and hate-filled as a series sweep could be. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that these teams do not like each other.

Cuddemi, who joined the team in exchange for Jordan Samuels-Thomas, wasted no time in making his mark. Just over three minutes into the first, a Colorado defenseman lost control of the puck at the Grizzlies’ blue line, and Austen Brassard pounced. Just about shaking off the Colorado player, he rang the puck off the bar. However, the rebound came straight to Cuddemi, who wired it into the back of the net for his first goal.

Unfortunately, Colorado tied it up at 6:45 as league-leading scorer Casey Pierro-Zabotel got one past Faragher.

About a minute later, Derek Rodwell boarded Eric Springer behind the Grizzlies’ net. Though Springer got up and skated off under his own power, he went straight to the dressing room, and didn’t return for the rest of the period. Fortunately, he returned to the Grizzlies bench half way through the second.

With a little over two minutes left in the period, Phil Pietroniro laid a hit on Cole Sanford,  and the two squared off by the Grizzlies’ blue line, but were broken up before a full-fledged fight could break out. Both players were sent to the box for roughing, and the period would end 4-on-4. After twenty, the score was tied 1-1, and the shots were 14-8 for the Grizzlies.

At 5:54 of the second, Mathieu Aubin took a slashing penalty, and the Grizzlies’ penalty kill went to work. Helgesen, who got some time as a defenseman after Springer went down, drew a tripping call half way through the PK.

As the game progressed, it got steadily chippier. With 5:51 left in the second, Pietroniro and Jesse Mychan dropped the gloves for real, and went down swinging behind the Grizzlies’ net. They were both sent to their respective dressing rooms, and just over a minute later, Brassard got sent to the box for tripping. However, the Grizzlies killed the penalty off without trouble.

With a minute left in the first, the Erik Higby beat Nathan Lieuwen, giving the Grizzlies the 2-1 lead going into intermission. Helgesen’s strong play throughout was rewarded with the assist.

The third period did not open in an auspicious manner for the home team, as Faragher got out of position trying to make a save, and Luke Salazar banged the rebound into the empty net.

After that, Colorado’s already tenuous hold on discipline slipped. Michael Sdao was sent off for tripping at 3:24, followed by Matt Register for roughing against Jon Puskar at 4:53. The Grizzlies called a timeout, and got themselves sorted out for the ensuing 31 seconds of 5-on-3.  Puskar got taken down yet again in front of the Eagles’ net, and another scrum ensued. Brassard and Sdao both got sent to the box as a result, getting double minors for roughing, Sdao was joined 18 seconds later by Pierro-Zabotel for cross-checking Tim Daly at the Grizzlies bench, and Jake Marto for roughing against Brandon McNally. McNally joined Brassard also for roughing against Marto.

Puskar took the best revenge possible for the abuse he suffered by scoring just seconds into the power play, tipping in Mike Banwell’s shot from the point. He almost got a second shortly thereafter, but the puck rolled away from him, and the rest of the Grizzlies’ power play expired without incident.

At 13:01, Sdao and Amestoy dropped the gloves, and wound up in the Eagles’ net, each getting five for fighting. With 5:22 left in the game, the Grizzlies coughed up the puck in their own end, and Cole Sanford tied the game up after being left all alone in the slot. Though Brassard got a pair of quality chances in the dying minutes, the game went to overtime.

Three-on-three hockey is amazing to watch. It’s wild, it’s five minutes of non-stop nail biting and end-to-end rushes, and this OT was no exception. The Grizzlies opened with Brassard, McNally and Pietroniro, and after three minutes and 39 seconds of anxiety, Brassard picked off the puck in the neutral zone, motored back into the offensive zone, and was allowed to get off a beautiful backhander all alone in front of the Eagles’ net.

Amestoy, Cuddemi, and Brassard were named the three stars of the game, and Faragher got the win, saving 28 of 31 shots, and improving to a perfect 4-0.

Bumps and Bruises

Games against Colorado often turn into wars of attrition, and a lot of guys were banged up in this game. Taylor Richart got run quite a few times, and Pietroniro hobbled off after blocking a shot in the second. Springer missed parts of both the first and second period after getting hit, and has since been put on the injured reserve. Puskar was the victim of quite a few hacks and slashes as the game progressed, and Daly was plastered to the boards in front of the Grizzlies bench. Tonight is likely to be no different.

Putting up Points

After tonight, two Grizzlies are at (or over) a point-per-game rate. Puskar leads the team with four goals and three assists in five games and rookie Shane Walsh has three goals and two assists. C.J. Eick has three goals and an assist, while Brassard, Aubin, and McNally all have a goal and three assists apiece.

Helgesen Shines

After having been scratched for two games, Helgesen was excellent. He was prominent on the first wave of several penalty kills, and was even on the ice in the final minute of a tied game. Thanks to Springer’s absence for a large part of the game, and Pietroniro’s five-minute penalty during that time, the Grizzlies were short two defensemen. Fortunately for them, Helgesen was drafted as a defenseman, and he stepped up in a big way, filling in on the back end several times during that stretch. He was rewarded for his efforts with an assist on Higby’s goal, and now has two points in three games.

These same teams play tonight at 7 PM MT. As Kevin Boyle is still in San Diego, there is a good chance that we will see Ryan McKay make his debut. Regardless of who plays, it’s bound to be a wild game.