The Rochester Grizzlies weren’t willing to leave their season in the hands of two teams in Wyoming.
The Grizzlies could have backed into the Fraser Cup, the North American 3 Hockey League’s postseason championship tournament. They could have waited and crossed fingers in hopes of the Sheridan (Wyo.) Hawks outlasting the Great Falls Americans in Game 3 of the Frontier Division Finals late Saturday night.
Instead, the Grizzlies backed up their NA3HL Central Division regular season championship by earning the Central Division postseason championship with a dominant 5-0 victory against their rival Peoria (Ill.) Mustangs at the Rochester Recreation Center on Saturday.
Rochester won the best-of-3 Central Division Finals series two games to one, sweeping Games 2 and 3 at the Rec Center on Friday and Saturday after falling 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 on Wednesday at Peoria.
Saturday’s victory is unquestionably the biggest in the brief three-year history of the franchise, which has won a lot of games in its short existence. The Grizzlies are 106-31-4 all-time and will make their first-ever appearance in the Fraser Cup, which begins Thursday at the St. Peters Rec Plex in St. Peters, Missouri, approximately 30 miles northwest of St. Louis.
The Fraser Cup schedule will be announced once the field is complete, after all of the NA3HL division finals series are finished on Sunday.
"It's a really quick turnaround," Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff said of the Fraser Cup beginning on Thursday. "We'll get back to work on Monday morning and keep preparing the way we have been. We'll take care of the guys who are dinged up a bit, make sure everyone gets the sleep they need and takes care of their bodies."
Rochester (38-6-1 overall, 4-1 postseason) had the possibility of qualifying for the Fraser Cup even if it had lost Saturday’s game. The Grizzlies would have earned the lone wild-card spot in the championship tournament if Sheridan won the Frontier Division Finals Saturday night.
The Grizzlies didn’t wait around for the finish of that series, though. They were able to celebrate after beating their fiercest rival — Rochester and Peoria played 11 times this season, the Grizzlies winning an evenly played season series 6-5-0 — in front of 500 fans at the Rec Center.
The Grizzlies (38-6-1 overall, 4-1-0 postseason) got off to a much stronger start Saturday than they did in Game 2 Friday night. It took Rochester more than 38 minutes to get on the board Friday. Saturday it scored twice in the first eight minutes.
Owatonna native Collin Pederson opened the scoring just 3:42 into the game, burying a rebound of a Blake Arneson shot. Pederson and linemates Cole Gibson and Micah Gernander had an oustanding weekend.
They were the lone Grizzlies line to provide some energy through the first period-and-a-half of Friday's 6-1 win. Saturday, Pederson scored the game-winning goal and the line accounted for seven points.
"They're workhorses," Grizzlies veteran forward and captain Matt DeRosa said. "Our team has a lot of depth. On any other team, they're a first or second line.
"When we get that line out against another team's third line it's chaos for the other team because we have first-liners there who roll and buzz and play the body, and they know how to score, too."
Rochester Century grad Joey Malugani made it 2-0 four minutes after Pederson's goal, when Peoria goalie Cole Walter stopped a Teppei Ueno shot from the left circle, but the puck sat free in the slot and Malugani beat a defender to it, then one-timed it top shelf.
Blake Arneson scored his second goal in as many nights 12 minutes into the second period to extend the Grizzlies’ lead to 3-0.
Gernander capped a three-point night with a goal midway through the third period for a 4-0 lead, then Teppei Ueno sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with 1:52 to play.
Shane Soderwall, the top goalie in the NA3HL this season, came up big for the Grizzlies time and time again. He stopped all 26 shots he faced — including two breakaways, one just 1:15 into the game — to record his seventh shutout of the season. In five playoff games, Soderwall is 4-1 with a 1.47 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage.
"He's the best goalie in the league right now," DeRosa said. "Him and (fellow Grizzlies goalie Zach Wiese), they're the best goalies in the league. We can always count on them. When we make a mistake they always have our backs and if they make a mistake we always have their backs to come back and do it for them."
GRIZZLIES 5, MUSTANGS 0
First period — 1. ROC, Collin Pederson 1 (Blake Arneson 2, Micah Gernander 2) 3:42. 2. ROC, Joey Malugani 3 (Teppei Ueno 3, Cody Reagle 4) 7:43. Second period — 3. ROC, Arneson 2 (Gernander 3, Cole Gibson 1) 12:00. Third period — 4. ROC, Gernander 1 (Yotaro Nakadate 4, Pederson 3) 10:49. 5. ROC, Ueno 4 (Logan Kroyman 2) 18:08 (en).
Shots on goal — PEO 6-10-10—26, ROC 18-11-8—37. Goalies — PEO, Cole Walter (L, 3-2; 32 saves-36 shots); ROC, Shane Soderwall (W, 4-1; 26 saves-26 shots). Power-play opportunities — PEO, 0-for-2; ROC, 0-for-4. Penalties — PEO, 6-33 minutes; ROC, 4-29 minutes.