Coming back from a brief Christmas break, the Grizzlies looked to erase the memory of a tough OT loss against Colorado on the 23rd. With Brendan Harms and Ryan Olsen back in the lineup, C.J. Eick, and Brad Navin went on reserve, while Howe served the second to last of his nine game suspension, and Kevin Carr got the start.
The whole evening did not begin well, what with the anthem singer momentarily forgetting the words, and the zamboni having to come out after the ceremonial puck drops to repair some ice behind the Grizzlies’ net.
Then, once the game started, a bad second shift allowed Jefferson Dahl to wheel around the net uncontested to make it 1-0 on a wrap-around :58 seconds into the game. Considering how bad the Grizzlies’ record is when the other team scores first, how the last home game against Idaho went (5-2 for the Steelheads), and how dominant Idaho looked early, there were definitely some causes for concern.
The weirdness didn’t stop there, as Idaho held possession through the first four minutes, and a hard shot got the head referee right in the head. Fortunately, he appeared to be none-the-worse for wear.
Utah had a few good shifts, but largely struggled to establish possession in the zone. There were signs of life though, from Leibinger, and the Ryan Line most noticably, but from the rest of the line-up as well.
However, off another long stretch in the defensive zone, Michael Pelech took an unforced delay of game penalty, putting the puck over the far glass at 9:14. The penalty kill got the job done, and the score remained unchanged.
Kyle Thomas and Corbin Baldwin got into a scuffle with just over five minutes to go, following a strong shift from the first line, but nothing came of it. That was about the time, however, that the Grizzlies came alive.
At 15:16 Ryan Olsen chipped the puck up to Ryan Misiak, Misiak fed Ryan Walters the perfect pass, and he converted to tie the game. Olsen got the secondary assist.
57 seconds later, Leibinger wired the puck from the point to give Utah the lead from Hanson and Thomas.
Idaho made a push to answer, and Harms took a penalty with 1:59 to go, as the third line continued to have a rough first period. Richart got tripped up with 1:13 to go, and the teams played four-on-four.
Thomas just missed Hanson on a two-on-one, and the Steelheads were likewise unable to tie it up in the final moments of a weird first period. Although Utah led 2-1, shots were 12-9 for the Steelheads.
The Grizzlies got off to a decent start in the next frame, following the 46 seconds of power play time. Leibinger almost got his second of the night on a beautiful move, and Carr flashed the leather on the other end. Unfortunately, Idaho tied it up right off the next face-off at 1:29.
The Grizzlies dodged a major bullet shortly thereafter as Carr made a huge save, and was out of position for the rebound. Fortunately, the Utah defensemen stopped the puck in the blue paint, and the Grizzlies got a chance of their own on the other end.
In the end, it was another rocket from a defenceman that gave Utah back the lead, as Sam Windle scored from center ice at 4:24 with assists from Leibinger and Erik Higby.
The third line had a great shift with around twelve minutes to go, but on the next shift, Misiak went down at the blue line. Already mysteriously down Zach Saar (later revealed to be an apparent illness according to the broadcast), and with Misiak gone, Idaho scored on the shift after that. The good news was that despite being helped off the ice, Misiak was back in short order, and Baldwin’s illegal contact to the head penalty at 11:30 on Higby sent Utah to the power play.
The second half of the period (and indeed the game) was far more characteristic of the Grizzlies and Steelheads, playing a much more structured, and less sloppy game.
Olsen gave up a bad turnover at the offensive zone blue line, but got it back before the puck crossed the Grizzlies’ blue line, and set up Hanson on a breakaway. Unfortunately, Philippe Desrosiers shut the door with about 4:30 to go in the frame.
The second ended with the Ryan Line buzzing, and after 40, shots were 23-18 for Idaho, tied 3-3.
“Just win the third” said Sam Windle in the intermission interview, and boy did the Grizzlies ever. Though, not so much in the first three minutes.
Utah got into gear after that though, and with 11:53 to go, Leibinger sprang Puskar on a gorgeous breakaway. That was the game breaker, and less than two minutes later, Higby forced a turnover, and Pelech scored off the cross-bar and in.
Taylor Richart put the cap on the night with another big shot from the blue line, giving the Grizzlies the 6-3 lead at 13:45, and breaking a goalless streak dating back to November 18th.
Puskar went to the box at 14:25, and again with 1:18 left in the third, but other than a net-front scuffle around Carr after a whistle, and another breakaway chance for Thomas and Hanson, they were both fairly uneventful.
With less than 30 seconds on the clock, Richart and Charlie Dodero tangled at center ice, and Mitch Jones and Corey Durocher dropped the gloves. Both got five for fighting, Dodero got two for roughing, and Utah closed out the night with their fifth win in the last eight.
After a rough first period, the third line really got going in the second, and in the third, scored (or were involved in) two of the Grizzlies’ goals three goals in the frame. Moreover, Leibinger was terrific all over the ice, throwing hits, blocking shots, making plays, getting chances, and of course, scoring a goal, and two assists. He was named third star of the game.
“He skates really well, he reads the play really well” Tim Branham said of Leibinger. “He trusts himself, he can make plays, that’s why he was really effective today. I thought he played really well defensively, had a good stick on puck, had a good gap all night, obviously made plays offensively, which we need, get some production from our back-end there. I though he was excellent tonight. We gotta follow that up with another good one though.
The Grizzlies got goals from every line, three from forwards, and three from defensemen. So what do they have to do to keep the offense rolling?
“This game is all about confidence. And you could tell. Once the score got 6-3, we started making some plays that we never would really make normally, and you could just tell that they were making them with confidence. This game is funny. That’s what it’s all about, hopefully this gives us the confidence to get going.
Leibinger thought the Christmas break also did the team some good. “We had some time away from the rink, sometimes that’s good for a team,” he said, “Especially if you’re struggling a little bit. You feel rejuvenated when you come back, see all the guys again, even if it’s just a couple of days”
“Carrying it forward,” he added, “I think we put a lot of effort in tonight, played hard, so I think if we do that every night, we have the talent to make plays, so I think it’s just all work ethic.”
Hard work and confidence. Those sound like good things to build success on going into the new year.