Utah Grizzlies: A Tale of Two Ryans

On the heels of a Cliff Watson call-up, a Jon Puskar suspension, and the absence of Brendan Harms (probably a result of the big hit he took in Colorado), the lineup saw yet another minor change. Ryans Misiak and Olsen skated with Brad Navin, while Zach Saar drew in on the third line with Erik Higby and C.J. Eick. Rob Mann returned to the lineup for the first time since November 10th, and Travis Howe was the tenth forward.

Ryan Walters and Taylor Richart wore the As, and Kevin Carr once again got the start.

The Olsen line got the first shot of the game, but the Grizzlies took the first penalty when Michael Pelech went off for slashing at 3:07. The penalty kill remained strong, even getting an up-ice rush or two of their own.

Idaho took an answering penalty just a few moments before the kill expired, and Utah went to the man advantage. It took the Grizzlies a while to set up in the offensive zone, and they ultimately came up empty.

As Idaho returned to full strength, the Grizzlies survived the first of several mad scrambles that occurred in front of the Utah net.

Goals off the face-off continue to be an ongoing problem for Utah, as Olsen got thrown out of the circle, Misiak lost the draw, and Shane Hanna scored on a nice shot at 11:03. The Olsen line, which had, up until that point, been having a strong night, followed up the bad face-off shift with a number of strong ones in the minutes that followed.

Good hustle from Eick drew a power play at 13:32 but though the Grizzlies maintained possession for a large majority of the five-on-four, with the exception of a chance from Walters in the blue paint that rang iron, and a lovely pass from Hanson to Misiak in the slot, they were largely unable to get the puck out of the perimeter.

With about three minutes to go, Idaho a two-on-one on a bad bounce, but shortly thereafter Navin laid a hit at the Idaho bench which forced a turnover, and Misiak hit a flying Olsen with the perfect cross-seam pass. Olsen’s fourth tied the game with 2:46 to go.

Richart got taken down with 35 seconds left in the period, and Utah went into the first intermission tied 1-1, shots 11-10.

The early power play went the way of so many others, even with Philippe Desrosiers missing his stick for a substantial stretch on one shift. Navin had a couple of good attempts, and Saar got off a good shot, but Idaho returned to full strength with no change in score.

Idaho came back three on two, and while Leibinger and Richart hand their hands full with the other two Steelheads, a wide open Hanna scored his second of the game and third of the year at 3:09.

Walters was hit up high with 14:35 left in the frame, but though he went down, and took a moment to get up, but he skated off, and didn’t miss a shift. No penalty was awarded on the play.

An Idaho turnover directly onto Olsen’s stick nearly sprang 13 on the breakaway, but the puck bounced, and Utah somehow ended up with a power play a moment later. Windle and Mitch Moroz jawed at each-other for a moment, and the Grizlies went to work. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, it was once again a strong possession power play, and Olsen got off a big shot, but it was blocked in front of Desrosiers, and Utah was not credited with a single shot.

There was another scramble around the Grizzlies net, and then the second line carried the puck up the ice, and Olsen got another grade A scoring chance.

Higby took a hooking minor half-way through the frame, but Idaho was similarly unable to muster any shots.

The two teams exchanged offensive zone time in the final couple of minutes of the game, Utah looking a little sloppy in their own zone, and Carr making an uncharacteristically bad play with the puck. However, luck went the Grizzlies’ way for a change, and a turnover by Alexander Dahl saw the puck go straight to the stick of Walters. He made no mistake, slinging the puck past Desrosiers for his fifth of the season, and third in as many games, with 1:26 left in the period.

The teams traded zone time to start the third again, while Branham alternated almost exclusively between the first and second lines, but Walters ran into Desrosiers driving hard to the net, and took a penalty. Pelech made one of those defensive plays that make him so valuable to the team, and Utah once again got lucky in yet another scramble around the net.

The Grizzlies had a couple of egregious turnovers in the defensive zone with just a bit over twelve minutes left, but Idaho was unable to sort themselves out enough to take advantage of them. Meanwhile, the Misiak-Olsen-Navin line continued to turn in a really strong performance, eventually putting up ten of the Grizzlies’ 23 shots.

Idaho’s Austin Fyten was assessed a ten minute unsportsmanlike conduct during a time out with 4:46 left to go. Idaho pressured in the final minutes of the game, but with 5.4 seconds left in the period, they iced the puck, and the Grizzlies took their timeout to get organized.

Olsen won the draw, and Hanson got off a shot, but at the end of 60, they were still deadlocked at two.

Utah played their league-leading 10th OT in a very controlled and conservative manner, getting only one shot to Idaho’s three, but carrying the puck for the vast majority of the time. In the end, OT wasn’t enough to break the tie either, and the game went to the shoot-out. It ended in all to familiar fashion. Carr let in a single goal on a crazy fake-out, and none of the Grizzlies answered.

“Tonight, I didn’t think we got the chances like we normally have.”Tim Branham said when asked about the team’s 23-shot performance. “Normally we create a lot more chances than that. But I still think you’re right. Structurally, we’re playing fine. Some guys, I think we had a few guys that maybe could have done a little bit more, but I thought for the most part we played some pretty good hockey. Would have been nice to have gotten two points against a depleted lineup there in Idaho, but I thought their goalie made some good saves, we hit the crossbar on a wide open net again. That’s been the story of our season so far, not scoring enough goals. I thought today was an anomaly though, we didn’t generate the chances like we normally do, but yet we still were in the game, and had power plays we could have scored on, and hit a crossbar on the power play on a wide open net. It is what it is. We’ve got to keep on playing the same way. We can’t deviate from the way that we’re playing, we’ve just got to try that much harder.”

One player who did do a little bit more was Ryan Olsen. The jump that has been missing from his game of late was back with a vengeance, and it wasn’t just him. After not making the trip to Colorado, Navin looked really sold. He was making plays look easy that he wouldn’t even have tried a few weeks back, while Ryan Misiak, who was on a four point roll before last weekend, led the team with four shots, as well as being instrumental in the first goal.

“I thought he did good tonight. I thought he stepped up.” Branham said of Olsen’s game. “Obviously scoring a goal early gets his confidence going. He’s very effective when he’s skating, and putting pucks on net, cause he’s very fast at this level, a big body, and he’s very good on draws. So when he sticks to what he’s good at, he’s very effective.”

Speaking of effective players, Chris Leibinger is neither flashy, nor a particularly prolific point producer, but he turns in a quietly consistent performance night in and night out. In fact, barring two middling games when he first arrived, he’s been terrific for the team. Likewise, Mitch Jones tends to fly under the radar, unnoticeable in the way good defencemen often are, before grabbing your attention with a great defensive play, or wicked shot.

 

When asked about the power play, which carried and possessed the puck well, but generated almost no shots, Branham said, “Against a PK unit like Idaho, they’re very aggressive, so passing it along the perimeter is good to settle them down, but then at some point, you’ve got to funnel pucks to the net, and I think we missed a couple opportunities to do that. I think that if we can kind of hone in on those small little opportunities—we worked on it a lot, showed a lot of video on it, we had quite a few plays in mind—it was jut one thing here, one thing there that messed it up. But we did a good job of gaining the zone, we did a job of possessing it, now it’s a matter of making sure we take that shot with traffic, and do a better job on those rebounds, of getting to those loose pucks so we get that puck back and we shoot. I thought you were right, we did possess the puck well we’ve just gotta do a better job of funneling the puck to the net.”

Kevin Carr was a little shaky at times, and it was nice to see the Grizzlies working hard to help him out around the net, when he’s been the one doing the rescuing on most nights this season. He was excellent in the shoot out, allowing only that one crazy fake-out goal. If anyone on this team deserves some wins, it’s him.

Speaking of wins (or a distressing lack thereof), last year at this time the Grizzlies were in the middle of a nine game losing streak, with an abysmal 7-13-1-1 record on December 4th. They then proceeded on their more-or-less annual post-Christmas tear, which saw them go 29-16-3-1 after that stretch. Meanwhile, this year’s team is 6-9-5-2, with standings points in 13 of 22 games. Highly frustrating, to be sure, but certainly better than it could be.

“They’re doing ok. Tonight was frustrating, because I thought we deserved better for the way we’ve been playing lately, but we’re collecting points. These are going to be huge later on down the road. We’re collecting points, we’re not getting losses, we’re collecting those points. We’ve got a lot of games within our division coming up still. This group is never out of it, my teams are never out of it. We’ve gotta fix a couple things, and we’ll be just fine.”

Utah plays the second of six games against Idaho tonight (Wednesday) at the Mav before heading out to Idaho for the weekend.

 

Image courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming and staff

Utah Grizzlies: Step Up

In the second game in two nights against Fort Wayne, the Grizzlies looked to avenge their 4-2 loss. And avenge it they did.

With Mitch Jones out after missing most of the third period, Ryan Walters back from the AHL, and Garrett Haar drawing in for his first game of the season, the Grizzlies went with five defencemen and eleven forwards. Tim Branham also elected to go with the hot hand, so Kevin Carr once again got the start in front of 7,656 fans.

“The guys were excited. I know we got beat last night, and were motivated not to get swept” Walters said after the game. “You can’t lose two in a row at home. So our goal is just to go out there period by period, and that first period was huge for us. We got a lot of momentum, and it ended up working out in our favor for the rest of the game.”

You could tell from the get-go that it was going to be a big night from Ryan Walters, as the Walters, Michael Pelech, Charley Graaskamp line had a couple of good early shifts. Likewise, Brendan Harms, Ryan Misiak, and Ryan Olsen picked up right where they left off.

Despite the early jump from the top two Utah lines, Carr saw a lot of rubber in the first nine minutes of the period. But as always, he was his usual calm, cool, and collected self, turning aside every shot he faced.

While the Grizzlies may have been a little passive in the defensive zone early, there was nothing passive about their offensive output. C.J. Eick got a shot just past the ten minute mark, which drew a crowd.

Two shifts later, Pelech tossed the puck to Walters in front of the net, and Ryan tipped it in perfectly. Graaskamp got the secondary assist, and it all boded very well for the Grizzlies who were 5-0-1-0 when scoring first.

Eick got two minutes for hooking, and Fort Wayne went to the power play at 13:42, and a minute later Richart got taken down behind the play. Before play could be blown down, Walters got his second goal on a thrilling goal short-handed breakaway. Pelech once again got the primary assist, and Chris Leibinger got the secondary.

Marc-Olivier Roy went to the box for the rough on Richart, but Utah was not able to capitalize four-on-four or five-on-four. They did, however get some good puck movement. Carr turned aside Roy’s breakaway bid out of the box with, wand through the second half of the period, the Grizzlies were much sharper in front of him.

Harms had two strong moves on one shift with less than a minute left in the frame, and Travis Howe and Cody Sol exchanged words in a scrum that gathered with mere seconds left.

After the buzzer, both teams converged on the ice, and words were exchanged, but while there was a lengthy discussion, nothing came of it.

After 20, shots were 13-10 for Fort Wayne, but Utah held the 2-0 lead, thanks to Carr’s terrific goaltending, and Walters’ pair of goals.

The Grizzlies drew an early power play, and got a few good chances, including a great set-up for Richart from Graaskamp, but the took a too-many-men call half way through.

Ralph Cuddemi and the Komets got some chances of their own on the four-on-four, and on their ensuing power play, but Carr and the Grizzlies’ defence held them off.

Richart leveled Garrett Thompson at the blue line with about 12 minutes to go, and Utah pressed the Komets. Brendan and the Ryans had a great, hard-working shift, and Harms drew a power play with 10:45 to go.

Mere moments later, Utah got a two-man advantage, as Jamie Schaafsma got sent off for holding. Branham called his time out to get organized.

This time, the power play paid off.

It took lots of passes, and a clear, but Cliff Watson passed to Richart from the right circle, and Pelech tipped it in to make it 3-0.

Erik Higby took a penalty with 7:44 to go, but thanks once again to Carr, and the play of Watson, Richart, and the others, that one too was killed off.

Watson, Pelech, and Walters had a beautiful three-on-one in the minutes that followed, and were all a little too unselfish, passing the puck just a few too many times. In the end, it didn’t matter, as the Olsen line had a hard-working shift, and Richart scored at 16:04 with assists from Olsen and Harms.

Fort Wayne pulled Michael Houser after the goal, and rallied a bit around Garrett Bartus, but Utah got out of the period with the 4-0 lead, shots 24-17 for Fort Wayne.

Walters began the third with a nifty move in his bid for the hat-trick, but Bartus was up for the challenge.

Haar took an interference penalty, but once again, the Utah kill remained perfect.

Fort Wayne broke the shut out with 11:11 to go, scoring on their 27th shot, a frustrating turn of events followed by a good deal of door and stick slamming. Graaskamp and Sol went off with matching slashing calls immediately thereafter. Haar made his presence felt on the four-on-four with a big hit behind the Grizzlies’ net, but there was no change in score before both teams returned to full strength.

Unfortunately, Utah got stuck in their own zone for the second time at 12:26, and once again Komets scored..

That’s as bad as it got, however, and Olsen and Haar both gave Grizz fans something to cheer about with a couple of thunderous hits as the game entered the last five minutes.

Fort Wayne pulled Bartus with just under two minutes to go, but Misiak was hauled down shortly thereafter. Utah ended the game on the power play, but the Komets again pulled their goalie on to fish the game five-on-five.

The final buzzer saw another 4-2 victory, this time for Utah, despite Fort Wayne’s 31-20 edge on the shot clock.

Walters (two goals), Carr (29 saves), and Pelech (one goal, two assists) were the three stars of the game.

When asked about Carr’s great performance, Walters said, “Carrsy is a great goalie. We rely on him a lot. I wish sometimes we didn’t rely on him as much, maybe give him a break every once in a while, but he’s been great this year, and I hope he keeps it up, and we couldn’t ask for anything more from him either.”

While Walters was busy praising Carr, Branham had great things to say about the boost Ryan’s return gives the Grizzlies.

“Fortunately for us, Ryan is back. Obviously it makes an immediate impact. It’s nice to have him. It gives us a lot of depth up front, and allows Ryan Olsen’s line to do their thing, and gives Pelech and Walters a good second punch there.”

Walters, Pelech, and Carr were certainly the top three stand outs. However, with the exception of the shifts that led to the two Fort Wayne goals, the Grizzlies played a pretty complete game, both in terms of team contribution, and in terms of the overall game itself. That fact was pretty well reflected on the scoreboard.

Richart got his sixth goal of the year, and is now tied for the league lead in goals amongst defencemen, and Leibinger has clearly settled into his role, picking up his second point in five games.

Brendan Harms has really come into his own in the past couple of weeks, picking up four points in four games as he, together with Olsen and Misiak have put together a couple of impressive games. The line has combined for two goals and four assists in the last two games, and has clearly found some chemistry. They have easily been one of the team’s best lines—only overshadowed by the terrific play of Walters and Pelech.

“I thought all our guys were really good tonight,” Branham added, “Obviously Carrsy in net was tremendous early on. We’re taking strides forward. It was nice to get Garrett Haar back as well. I’m sure he was feeling it a little bit, not having played there for a little while, but he did a great job.”

Utah has now won eight of their last ten games, their abysmal start rapidly disappearing in the rear-view mirror as they look forward to next weekend’s tilts with the Colorado Eagles.

 

Photo courtesy of Jess Fleming

Utah Grizzlies: Brendan and the Ryans

Finally home after a good road trip, the Grizzlies took on the Fort Wayne Komets in the first of seven home games to finish November.

With Ryan Walters loaned to the Belleville Senators of the AHL, it was a bit of a hitch in the Grizzlies’ scoring machine to find out that Kyle Thomas had also been called up to the Gulls prior to the game. Charley Graaskamp and Brad Navin drew back into the lineup in their places, and Kevin Carr got the call in net.

Walters and Harms are the latest in a series of call-ups that have taken Greger Hanson, and James Melindy to San Diego, leaving Utah without some of their top scorers.

“We’re missing Walters, Hanson, Thomas, it’s tough when those guys are gone,” Tim Branham said after the game, “But it’s definitely an opportunity for other guys to step up, I thought [Ryan] Misiak, [Ryan] Olsen, [Brendan] Harms, obviously, they were great, and some other lines had some scoring opportunities, but we just didn’t cash in. In times like these, you’ve really got to rely on your power play, and again, I thought we had some good looks on it, but just didn’t put it in. We’ve just got to dig in a little deeper.”

When asked for his thoughts on the game in general, he said: “I thought we played a pretty solid game the first two periods. We started getting low on players with some injuries, and some penalties, so that was kinda hard. Special teams was a difference, we couldn’t cash in on the power play, had a few good looks, and they get one good chance and scored, right? That’s the difference when you’re missing three of your four top goal scorers, it’s tough. I mean, no excuses. I thought we played a pretty solid game, a few mistakes on some bad goals. Not on the goalie, our goalie played amazing, but systematically, just some bad goals on our part. We’ve just got to clean that up. We know we gotta make it a low scoring affair, we’re not going to get in a track meet with these guys, and I thought a couple of times we did, through turnovers and stuff, so we gotta make sure that we clean that up.”

Fort Wayne got off to the best start, spending a long first shift in the Grizzles’ zone, but after that first shift, both teams got chances.

There was a particularly dangerous moment when Carr wound up well out of his crease in a crowd of players, but he managed to poke the puck out of harm’s way amongst a sea of players to keep it scoreless.

Utah drew the first power play of the game at 6:22 when Artur Tyanulin attempted to break up a great Grizzlies’ opportunity.

Of course, former Grizz Ralph Cuddemi struck first for Fort Wayne, but Travis Howe dropped the gloves off the next face-off with Taylor Crunk, both getting two for removing their helmets, and of course, five for fighting.

The Grizzlies made it 1-1 at 4:59 when Olsen made a great pass to Harms, who passed to Misiak after Michael Houser bit on the play, and Misiak scored into the wide open net.

After the first period, Fort Wayne led the shots 14-13, and the score was tied at one.

The second period began well, but the Komets ended up with some very, very good zone time. Fortunately for Utah, it was Olsen who scored at 4:59 to make it 2-1.

A few minutes later, however, Garrett Thompson tied the game up right off the face-off. The two teams treated the fans to some fast end-to-end hockey. Carr made a pretty little windmill save on Cuddemi, and Brendan and the Ryans created some really great chances on a Grizzlies’ power play.

They continued to get great looks after the penalty expired, and when C.J. Eick drew yet another man advantage, they got even more chances. Navin, Zach Saar, Erik Higby, Michael Pelech, and Cliff Watson also had a great shift on another power play as the period came to an end.

After forty, the score was still 2-2, Utah out-shooting Fort Wayne 24-21.

Utah opened the third on a 59 second power play, but like most early power plays, it got nothing accomplished, and Carr had to make a couple of good saves.

Mason Baptista ran over Carr at 4:01, and Richart took exception. Both went to the box for roughing, Richart getting an extra two for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Ryan Culkin scored eight seconds later on the power play to break the tie.

Both teams exchanged penalties, the Grizzlies moving the puck quite well, Richart and Graaskamp both making good plays. Despite some good pressure from Utah in the final minutes, the Komets scored into the empty net, and the Grizzlies fell 4-2.

Ryan Olsen (1G, 1A) and Ryan Misiak (1G) got the second and third stars, the former also leading the team with seven shots. Carr was his usual stellar self, as well, turning aside 27 of 30 shots.

When asked if the Grizzlies need to change anything for the next game against the Komets, Branham said no.

“I thought we played a pretty good game.” He added. “The mistakes that we made were definitely not system, once again, we got scored on on a face-off, that’s just not being ready on a face-off. Their power play goal our d-man didn’t take the pass away, and their first goal, we had the puck on our stick, and shot it at their chest, just some plays we need to clean up, and when we have the puck on our stick we need to make sure that we make good plays, and don’t just give it back to them.”

The two teams meet again tonight (Saturday).

 

Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard, Jess Fleming, and staff