Simply the Best! Rochester Grizzlies capture NA3HL Fraser Cup national championship
The Rochester Grizzlies controlled play from start to finish, topping the Granite City Lumberjacks 4-0 in the NA3HL national championship game Sunday in St. Peters, Mo.
ST. PETERS, Mo. — Four years as a franchise.
Three North American 3 Hockey League Central Division championships.
Two NA3HL Central Division postseason championships.
And now, after what feels like an eternity, but in reality is a remarkably short time for a franchise to turn into the best in the league, the Rochester Grizzlies can add one national championship to their resume.
Zach Wiese turned in another lights-out performance, posting a 29-save shutout in the biggest game of the season, and perhaps of his career.
Luke Morrisette, Max Breon, Ben Oakland and Adam Johnson scored goals.
And the entire Grizzlies team flooded the ice at the St. Peters RecPlex as the final buzzer sounded on the NA3HL Fraser Cup national championship game late Sunday afternoon. The Grizzlies soundly defeated the Granite City Lumberjacks, 4-0, to win their first national title.
"We had our ups and downs this year," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "We didn't dominate like we did last year and at times we just weren't all on the same page, but we knew we had the talent and the skill level to do it."
Winning the Fraser Cup was the No. 1 goal in mind for a year, after the Grizzlies lost to North Iowa — by that same four-goal margin by which they won on Sunday — in the 2021 Fraser Cup championship game.
The path back to the title game wasn’t an easy one — not this week, and not over the past seven months.
The Grizzlies turned over more than half of their roster from last season. They lost the 2021 NA3HL MVP (Peyton Hart) and Goalie of the Year (Shane Soderwall), and they had close to a dozen players called up to the North American Hockey League at different times during the season.
Yet, this team epitomized the old saying of “taking things a day at a time.”
They rarely used the same lineup combination in consecutive games, something that ultimately proved to be very beneficial, as players learned how to adapt to whoever was in the lineup — and whoever their linemates were — on a given night.
"That's how it's been for three years here," said Ratzloff, who took over as the Grizzlies head coach after their first season when Casey Mignone was promoted to a coaching position in the NAHL. "That's the way we try to build our team. We roll four (lines) and play seven (defensemen) through the whole season. That puts us in position to be on top at the end.
"We don't have the guys with the most points, because we have a lot of guys who get points. (Our success) is because of the way we play and how deep our team is."
Saturday, all of those ups and downs, the highs and lows and times of uncertainty over the past seven months, turned out to be all worth it.
The Grizzlies' play over their final three games at the Fraser Cup was in stark contrast to their play in their national-tournament opener on Wednesday, a 5-2 loss to the Northeast Generals. Rochester had the next day off and re-focused at practice. That set the tone for three consecutive victories — 4-2 against the Gillette (Wyo.) Wild in the final game of pool play, 4-1 against the Helena (Mont.) Bighorns in Saturday's national semifinals, and 4-0 against Granite City in the championship game Sunday.
So what changed between Wednesday and Friday?
"You just don't know what it's going to be like to play in these games until you're here," Ratzloff said of his team, which had an almost entirely different roster than last year's Fraser Cup runner-up squad. "These are the fastest games of the season. They're the hardest games and the most physical games of the season, by far.
"Wednesday, I think we thought we were a good team collectively and we thought it would be easier than it was. We found out in a hurry if you make mistakes here, you pay for them."
That message was delivered — and received — at Thursday's practice.
"He had a really good practice on Thursday on our day off and we regrouped," Ratzloff said. "The day off was perfect timing. We had to regroup and get back on the right foot, all on the same page. We did, and we were ready and focused.
"I think the difference is the guys finally saw it up close, close enough to reach out and touch it. They thought 'we might not ever get this chance again, so let's pull together.'"
The Grizzlies, who finished 45-8-3 overall, did that on Sunday. They opened the scoring and took the lead for good when Morrisette scored 11:20 into the game.
That’s how the score remained until Breon added to it with a goal 7:04 into the second.
Wiese, meanwhile, was locked in. The Owatonna native made eight of his 29 saves in the first period and an amazing 15 in the second to preserve the Grizzlies’ lead. It was his best performance of the tournament and third outstanding game in a row. Whatever he didn't save, he directed to the corners and away from trouble.
Wiese's fifth shutout of the season helped him end the year with a 27-4-2 record.
"It's unbelievable," Wiese told NA3HL.com in a post-game interview. "I was just thinking of the guys from last year's team who couldn't come back and didn't win it last year. This one is huge; it means a lot to me right now.
"Focus (was the difference between the first game and the rest of the week). I had a lot of nerves, hadn't really played in an atmosphere like this. Once we got the second game under our belts and got a win, I just had to let my teammates score goals and I'd stop some pucks."
Oakland and Johnson scored 4:18 apart to extend the Grizzlies lead to 4-0 less than 8 minutes into the third. That all but locked up the franchise’s first Fraser Cup, in just its fourth year of existence.
"This team was unbelievably close," Wiese said. "I love coming to the rink every day and seeing these guys."