The Rochester Grizzlies’ first-ever game in the Fraser Cup took a wrong turn quickly.
But as they have done time and time again over the past three years, the Grizzlies’ trio of veteran forwards got the team turned around and headed in the right direction almost immediately.
The Grizzlies’ other three lines carried their weight, too, as Rochester bounced back from allowing a goal 18 seconds into the game, to earn a nail-biter of a 4-3 victory against the Texas Brahmas in their opening game of the North American 3 Hockey League’s championship tournament at the St. Peters Rec Plex in St. Peters, Mo.
"I wasn't worried, but I was very happy we answered back right away," said Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff, whose team has given up the first goal in every postseason game except one this year. "We were ready. They just got a 3-on-2 and their guy shot far-pad and they got the rebound they wanted.
"It was good to answer back. It felt like we were tentative at times. (But) when we were moving and pressuing hard, when we established the forecheck, they had a hard time getting out (of their own end)."
Captain Peyton Hart had a goal and two assists, while fellow captains Matt DeRosa and Garrett Smith had a goal and an assist each, third-year Grizzly Joey Fodstad had two assists and Shane Soderwall stopped 27 shots in the victory. Second-year Grizzlies forward Hunter Wilmes also scored for Rochester, which improved to 39-6-1.
The Grizzlies can lock up a spot in the national semifinals with a victory Friday against the Oklahoma City Blazers. That game is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be live streamed on HockeyTV.com.
"We know Oklahoma City is a good team," said Smith, who scored his 12th goal of the season and added his 40th assist of the season in Thursday's game. "They didn't play (Thursday), so they'll be ready and have fresh legs. Their season's on the line, this is a huge game for them and they'll be really hungry to get a win. We just have to focus on taking care of the little things."
The six-team Fraser Cup tournament is divided into two three-team pools. Sheridan (Wyo.), which had the best record in the NA3HL in the regular season, leads Pool A after a 13-2 victory against the Northeast Generals (Attleboro, Mass.) on Thursday afternoon.
The Grizzlies now lead Pool B and can secure the pool championship with a victory on Friday.
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THURSDAY'S 3 STARS
3. Tyler Blanchard, Texas: The standout forward scored the game's first goal and assisted on the Brahmas' second goal to help them regain the momentum early in the third period.
2. Garrett Smith, Grizzlies: The assistant captain assisted on Hunter Wilmes' go-ahead goal to give Rochester the lead for good, then scored a big goal with less than 4 seconds remaining in the second period.
1. Peyton Hart, Grizzlies: Rochester's captain came up big, scoring 1:20 into the game and answering an early goal by Texas. Hart then added two assists, including setting up linemate Matt DeRosa for the game-winning goal.
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Texas briefly stunned the Grizzlies on the first shift of the game Thursday, when Soderwall stopped a shot by Seth Wyatt-Manning on a three-on-two rush, but the rebound bounced directly to Tyler Blanchard, who fired it into the net for his 30th goal of the season.
Rochester showed its poise and experience, though, answering on the ensuing shift. The team’s three most veteran players combined for the tying goal, starting with Fodstad winning a puck battle along the boards behind Texas goalie Dolan Gilbert. Fodstad moved the puck to Matt DeRosa near the goal line and he quickly fed Peyton Hart in the left circle. Hart didn’t hesitate in snapping a shot past Gilbert to make it 1-1 just 1:20 in.
"That was huge," Smith said of Hart's goal. "(Texas) was ready to play right away. We had to ramp it up quick."
Though there were tense moments late in the game, Soderwall — who officially signed a tender agreement this week to play for the new NAHL franchise in Anchorage, Alaska, next season — ensured the Brahmas didn’t regain the lead. He stopped Leevi Selanne and RJ Muckensturm on short breakaways in the second period after turnovers by the Grizzlies in their own end.
"It just shows he's the best goalie in the league," Smith said. "His stats are phenomenal. Even in the games he doesn't see a lot of shots ... he's so mentally focused and driven. That's why he's tendered and moving on."
Soderwall’s superb play allowed the Grizzlies to take the lead for the first time 5:35 into the second, when they found themselves with a three-on-one advantage down low in the Brahmas’ zone. Hart held the puck to Gilbert’s left and fed Smith in the low slot. Smith showed patience, holding the puck and waiting for the Brahmas’ defender to commit. Smith then quickly slid the puck to Wilmes in the right circle and Wilmes zipped a shot past Gilbert to give Rochester a 2-1 lead.
The Grizzlies extended the lead on a nice passing play on a power play with just 3.6 seconds to play in the second period. Sam Williams sent the puck from the point to Fodstad in the low slot. Fodstad corralled the puck then fired a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Smith, who hammered it into a wide-open goal to make it 3-1.
"Joey made a heck of a play," Smith said. "We've been talking about that little play all year along and finally we executed it in a big moment."
The teams traded goals in the first five minutes of the third, as Hart fed DeRosa on the doorstep to make it 4-1, 3:24 into the third. But Texas answered 44 seconds later when Micah Maldonado re-directed a point shot past a screened Soderwall to cut the Brahmas’ deficit to 4-2.
Texas pulled within a goal with 6:12 to play on a near carbon-copy of its first goal. Soderwall stopped Mason Mara’s shot from above the left circle, but the long rebound went directly to Blake Rothstein, who didn’t miss the open side of the goal and made the score 4-3.
Texas pulled Gilbert with 1:03 remaining, but couldn’t get sustained pressure. Soderwall twice saved and held the puck, and Hart won three big faceoffs in the final 45 seconds.
"We got back to moving our feet and finishing checks," Ratzloff said of Rochester's defensive effort in the closing minutes. "That kind of took their momentum away. It was hard for their defensemen to get out (of their end) clean when we were on them, and our guys using their speed made it hard for them, too."
Ratzloff said the Grizzlies have to stay out of the penalty box against Oklahoma City and put together a full 60-minute effort with all five guys on the ice at any given time working together.
"We just need to worry about continuing to do things the right way," he said. "We have to take care of what we do."
GRIZZLIES 4, BRAHMAS 3
First period — 1. TEX, Tyler Blanchard 30 (Seth Wyatt-Manning 25) :18. 2. ROC, Peyton Hart 26 (Matt DeRosa 22, Joey Fodstad 25) 1:20. Second period — 3. ROC, Hunter Wilmes 19 (Garrett Smith 40, Hart 29) 5:35. 4. ROC, Smith 12 (Teppei Ueno 12, Sam Williams 12) 19:56 (pp). Third period — 5. ROC, DeRosa 25 (Hart 30) 3:24. 6. TEX, Micah Maldonado 4 (Luke Busher 12, Blanchard 54) 4:08. 7. TEX, Blake Rothstein 24 (Mason Mara 24) 13:48.
Shots on goal — TEX 7-13-10—30, ROC 9-17-16—42. Goalies — TEX, Dolan Gilbert (L, 19-4-1; 38 saves-42 shots); ROC, Shane Soderwall (W, 24-3-0; 27 saves-30 shots). Power-play opportunities — TEX, 0-for-2; ROC, 1-for-2. Penalties — TEX, 2-4 minutes; ROC, 2-4 minutes.
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Grizzlies goals vs. Brahmas
• Brahmas 1, Grizzlies 1: Fodstad wins a puck battle on the boards behind Gilbert and gets it to DeRosa, who spots Hart alone in the left circle. The captain doesn't miss, snapping it past Gilbert.
Not to be outdone, the @RochesterGrizz answer back just over a minute later of Game 2 of the #FraserCup as Payton Hart finds the back of the net to make 1-1, which would be the score at the end of the 1st period. pic.twitter.com/jTqiXk5lRp— NA3HL (@NA3HL) April 16, 2021
• Grizzlies 2, Brahmas 1: Hart controls the puck along the wall and carries to the faceoff dot, forcing a Brahmas defender to drop to block a potential shot. Hart instead pulls it back and feeds Smith in the slot. Smith spots Wilmes to his left and sends it to the veteran forward. Wilmes holds it for a split second before zipping it past Gilbert to give Rochester its first lead.
• Grizzlies 3, Brahmas 1: A sensation play by Fodstad, who corrals a Sam Williams point shot at the top of the crease, then sends a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Smith in the left circle. Smith has a wide open net to shoot at and doesn't miss.
With just :03 seconds remaining in the 2nd period, the @RochesterGrizz take a 3-1 lead in Game 2 of the #FraserCup as Garrett Smith gets a great pass from Teppei Ueno to increase the lead to two goals. pic.twitter.com/AdsZ8t85cJ— NA3HL (@NA3HL) April 16, 2021
• Grizzlies 4, Brahmas 1: Another heads-up play by Hart, who gathers the puck in the left circle, skates it behind the net and sees DeRosa camped on the top of the crease with two Brahmas defenders nearby, but no one in the passing lane. Hart puts the puck on DeRosa's tape and DeRosa bats it home for the game winner.