Matt DeRosa wasn’t sure how to react.

He looked up and down the Rochester Grizzlies’ bench as the final seconds ticked off the clock at the Rochester Recreation Center Saturday night. Then he finally caught the attention of fellow third-year Grizzly Peyton Hart.

As they have been so many times over the past three years, Hart and DeRosa were faced with a big decision as the team’s leaders: How do we celebrate something that’s never happened before?

“We were on the bench looking around like ‘do we throw our gloves and sticks?’” DeRosa said. “I looked at Hartsy and we looked around and said ‘no, we’re not done yet, We throw our gloves and sticks when we’re at the very end of the season and win the very last game.’

“We’ll enjoy this for a couple of hours with the boys, then we’ll get some rest and dial back in.”

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If anyone deserves to take some time to revel in the Grizzlies’ first NA3HL Central Division playoff championship, it’s DeRosa, Hart and Joey Fodstad. They’re the only three players who have been with the franchise since its very first game, in the fall of 2018.

The Grizzlies made the playoffs as a first-year franchise that season, falling to a powerful North Iowa team in the first round. Last year, the Grizzlies captured their first regular season division title, but their chance to win a postseason series or championship was ended before it started, as the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the NA3HL’s postseason. The Grizzlies were on a bus to Peoria, Illinois, in March of 2020 when they got the call to turn around because the postseason had been called off.

So Rochester’s 5-0 win against Peoria on Saturday in Game 3 of the best-of-3 Central Division finals brought the team full circle. The victory lifts them into the Fraser Cup, the six-team tournament to decide the NA3HL’s champion. The Fraser Cup begins Thursday in St. Peters, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis.

“I think, first of all, for Joey and Matt and Peyton, this is … they’ve been here since the beginning. This is the goal at our level, to win (the Fraser Cup), so just to have that opportunity finally for them, it’s big.

“For the rest of the guys who were here last year, we didn’t even get a chance. We had a pretty good team last year and it would’ve been interesting to see what could’ve happened. But these guys are pretty excited because that was kind of taken away from them last year and now they get the chance.”

For all the Grizzlies have accomplished over their three seasons — 106 wins and two regular-season division titles — to be able to hang a postseason banner at the Rec Center is a reward for the hard work and patience the veterans have shown throughout their time in Rochester.

“Honestly it feels like destiny,” DeRosa said. “Our first year could have been better, but we lost to North Iowa, a great team, that year. Our second year we got it ripped away from us and it felt like, coming back this year, this is our destiny, to get back to the playoffs, go to the Fraser Cup and win the whole thing.”

The Grizzlies are expected to depart Rochester Tuesday to travel to St. Louis, hold a practice session Wednesday and begin play in the national championship tournament on Thursday.

The Fraser Cup includes the postseason tournament champions of the NA3HL’s five divisions, as well as one wild-card team, the team with the most points in the regular season standings that did not win a postseason division championship. The six qualifiers are divided into two three-team pools for round-robin play Thursday and Friday. The winner of each pool earns a bye into the national semifinals on Sunday, while the other four teams play quarterfinal games on Saturday. The championship game is set for 3 p.m. Monday, April 19.

The Grizzlies are the No. 2 overall seed and will play their round-robin games at 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. Friday.

The entire Fraser Cup tournament is live-streamed on HockeyTV.com.

“We’re one step closer to our goal,” DeRosa said. “We’re climbing the mountain day by day. We’re going to get there and we’re going to get it done.”

The final game of the NA3HL Central Division finals got more than a little testy as Ethan Noonan prepares to throw a punch at Thomas Kayner of Peoria. Both players drew off-setting five minute penalties. The  Rochester Grizzlies shut out the Peoria Mustangs in game 3 of the NA3HL Central Division Finals Saturday April 10, 2021. (Jerry Olson for the Post Bulletin)
The final game of the NA3HL Central Division finals got more than a little testy as Ethan Noonan prepares to throw a punch at Thomas Kayner of Peoria. Both players drew off-setting five minute penalties. The Rochester Grizzlies shut out the Peoria Mustangs in game 3 of the NA3HL Central Division Finals Saturday April 10, 2021. (Jerry Olson for the Post Bulletin)