Three years ago Saturday, the Rochester Grizzlies franchise was born.
On April 3, 2018, the Rochester Park Board approved the North American 3 Hockey League team's three-year lease agreement to play at the Rochester Recreation Center.
Saturday night, the Grizzlies rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the Oregon (Wis.) Tradesmen 5-2 to win a NA3HL Central Division semifinal playoff series. The franchise's first-ever playoff series victory came three years to the day after the franchise was officially founded.
"I think that's something we've been preaching all year long," second-year Grizzlies forward and team captain Garrett Smith said. "It starts with this first series and that's the first stepping stone to moving on.
"That's not where we want to stop, though. Our goal is to go all the way to the Fraser (Cup, the NA3HL championship tournament) and finish it off with a championship. So this is just the first step."
Saturday night felt like a long time coming for a franchise that is still in its relative infancy.
The Grizzlies have set the blueprint for how a new junior hockey franchise can find success quickly, from hiring the right coaches to finding the right players to help build a winning culture.
The Central Division champion Grizzlies (36-5-1 overall) will face rival Peoria in the division championship series next week. Game times and the series schedule have not yet been determined. The Grizzlies will have home-ice advantage for the best-of-3 series and are guaranteed at least one home game.
"It's a step in the right direction," Grizzlies' second-year head coach Chris Ratzloff said of sweeping the series against Oregon. "That's what they were hoping for in the first year here and they didn't quite get there. Then we didn't get a chance at the playoffs last year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), so I think this is the first step. We got that first one out of the way now and it's 'get ready for Peoria.'"
'It shows ... our will to win'
The Grizzlies had to battle for a full 60 minutes Saturday to earn the series victory, after a dominant 9-1 victory in Game 1 on Friday.
Oregon (19-22-1) got off to a quick start in Game 2, with two goals in a span of 1:26 to take a 2-0 lead just 8:22 into the game. Former Grizzlies forward Devin Hays opened the scoring 6:56 in, then Jacob Best scored 86 seconds later for a 2-0 Tradesmen lead.
That was all the Grizzlies' defense and goalie Shane Soderwall (26 saves) allowed, though.
"We weren't ready to come out against their best," Smith said. "We knew they were going to give that to us, we just didn't know what it was because we didn't see it (Friday) night. It was a little setback at the start, but it shows how resilient this group is and how much we want to win, and our will to win."
The Grizzlies started chipping away at their deficit when Hunter Wilmes scored his first goal of the postseason 12:09 into the first period. Peyton Hart added his third goal of the weekend four minutes into the second period to tie the score 2-2.
That's how the score remained until midway through the third.
"We talked before the game about, this one could go one of two ways," Ratzloff said. "One, in the first five minutes they could feel like getting back on the bus and going home, or two, they'd have some life. They got their second goal about (eight) minutes in and they had some life and they played hard.
"We didn't do the things we did (Friday) night, the things we need to do to win playoff games, but we found a way to win and I guess that's the sign of a good team, when you're not at your best and you find a way to win. If we want to go much farther, we're going to have to play the way we played (Friday) and do the little things, take care of the details."
The Grizzlies put 58 shots on goal in the game, and finally broke through more than once in the final 12 minutes.
They notched the game-winning goal with 11:24 to go, when veteran forward Joey Fodstad made a hustle play to set up Justin Wright for a tap-in goal on a rush.
"Joey made a great play," Ratzloff said. "He was finishing up his shift and everyone was coasting around, but Joey was moving his feet. He hit the guy on the wall, forced a turnover and made an unbelievable play to Justin. ... For once, a pass was on the tape tonight. It's amazing what happens, the puck ends up in the back of the net."
Cole Gibson added his third goal of the weekend with 2:25 remaining, then Teppei Ueno scored an empty-net goal with 1:17 to go to seal the victory and put an end to Oregon's season.
"In games like these, you know teams are always going to come out and play their best against you, give it their best," Wright said. "When they have nothing to lose, you know it's going to be a battle. For them, they knew this could potentially be the last game of their season, do-or-die hockey."
The Grizzlies will now face the same scenario next weekend — win or go home in a best-of-3 division championship series against rival Peoria.
"They're a good team, they've given us battles every time we've played them," Wright said of Peoria. "We expect nothing less in this upcoming series. We'll have to be on top of our game if we want to win.
"They're a hard-working team, they never stop battling. If we don't get the jump on them, they could catch us flat-footed. But if we go out there and play our style of hockey, we can keep that from happening."
GRIZZLIES 5, TRADESMEN 2
First period — 1. ORE, Devin Hays 1 (Sam VanderHoeven 1, Branwen Pollett 1) 6:56. 2. ORE, Jacob Best 1 (Carter Watters 1) 8:22. 3. ROC, Hunter Wilmes 1 (Tyler Huffer 1) 12:09. Second period — 4. ROC, Peyton Hart 3 (Yotaro Nakadate 3) 4:14. Third period — 5. ROC, Justin Wright 1 (Joey Fodstad 2) 8:36. 6. ROC, Cole Gibson 3 (Peyton Hart 1) 17:35. 7. ROC, Teppei Ueno 2 (unassisted) 18:43 (en).
Shots on goal — ORE 12-8-8—28, ROC 11-26-15—52. Goalies — ORE, Cole Garver (L, 0-2-0; 47 saves-51 shots); ROC, Shane Soderwall (W, 2-0-0; 26 saves-28 shots). Power-play opportunities — ORE, 0-for-2; ROC, 1-for-3. Penalties — ORE 6-33 minutes; ROC 5-31 minutes.