WEST VALLEY CITY Before things get started tonight at 8 MDT in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in the ECHL National Conference Finals, the Utah Grizzlies can do nothing but admit the conference regular-season-champion Wranglers "have had their way" with Utah this season. Those are coach Jason Christie's words, and they are true.
The Grizzlies won their first game against Las Vegas and haven't won in the 10 games since, going 1-7-1-2 for the 2007-08 year with the Wranglers. Six of them were one-goal games.
But the Grizzlies, 8-3 in the first two rounds of the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs, just like the Wranglers who had a 47-13-5-7 season for 106 points to Utah's 32-30-2-8 record worth 74 points are full of confidence going into this series.
In most of the games they played against Las Vegas they were short-handed, said veteran defenseman Ian Forbes. Now their injured are back, as are those who played in AHL Bridgeport, and they feel whole.
"Playoff hockey is a whole new season. No one expected us to beat Fresno and Victoria," said Forbes of the first two series Utah won against teams seeded much higher than the Grizzlies.
Rookie defenseman Jeff Dwyer notes that Vegas plays a style similar to what Victoria did offensively, almost a European way of playing by passing the puck rather than the dump-and-chase game a lot of teams used. Utah frustrated Victoria's passing and rushes, disrupting them in the neutral zone. Dwyer said Las Vegas is better at it, but he thinks Utah can still cope.
The Grizzlies have been better on the road than at home much of the season and won Game 1 of both of their previous playoff series on the road. The Grizzlies won at Fresno 6-1 in Game 1 and at Victoria 6-0 in Game 1. It is 4-1 in road playoff games so far, and the Utah power play leads the ECHL in the playoffs at 25.9 percent efficiency.
Also, the Grizzlies are getting what Dwyer calls "awesome" goaltending from Mike Mole (3-0) and Nathan Lawson (5-3). They have three playoff shutouts between them, and Mole leads the ECHL for players with more than one game with a 1.95 goals-against average.
And maybe Utah's most important trait is that, even though it had its share of players moving back and forth from Utah to the AHL Sound Tigers over the season, the team seems to have remarkable cohesion. The players all get along on the ice and off.
Rookie Ryan Cruthers, who joined the club straight out of college with four games left in Utah's regular season, says, "I feel like I've been here since the start of training camp (last fall). Everyone welcomed me right away" and made him feel like he belonged. Cruthers' first game with Utah was against Las Vegas, and he had an assist in his pro debut.
He centers a Utah'"energy line" with Scott Burt and Olivier Labelle. That line came to life in scoring in the series against Victoria, and even if it doesn't score, it contributes greatly, said Christie.
"It's just a good mix of guys, older veterans and younger guys," said Cruthers, words that also come from Christie, Forbes and Dwyer. He notes that every day, large groups of players stay together to go to lunch or play golf. Because they're so close, said Cruthers, each man is more accountable to his teammates and more likely to take peer suggestions to heart.
Said Forbes, who has won two championships since turning pro in 2000, "I've never really been on a team where guys didn't get along, but this one has a little bit extra."
Both clubs have had long layoffs since they won their second-round series in five games each, partly due to a coaching convention in the Orleans. Las Vegas has been off for 10 days, Utah for eight.
Christie said that much time without playing makes it imperative for Utah to "make sure we keep it simple and bring our high-energy game."
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