WEST VALLEY CITY — Their recent two-week slump notwithstanding, the Utah Grizzlies are enjoying their best season in several years and looking to win their first division championship in the East Coast Hockey League.
Utah's professional hockey team sits atop the Mountain Division of the ECHL's Western Conference with a 28-17-4-1 record and 61 points total.
The Idaho Steelheads and Alaska Aces are breathing down their necks, but Grizzlies' coach Kevin Colley believes his team, featuring a bunch of young, eager players with strong team chemistry and a top goaltender, can win a division title and make a run in the playoffs come April.
Colley says "team unity" has been the key to his team's success and adds, "Everyone is buying in to everything that is being said. Team morale is so high that they're battling for one another and we're getting results because of that.''
The Grizzlies open a homestand tonight, featuring four games in the next five nights in the strange world of minor league hockey scheduling. To save money, teams often come in for two-night stands, so Alaska plays at the Maverick Center tonight and Wednesday and then Las Vegas comes to town play Friday and Saturday. Besides these four games, the Grizzlies play just three other games over a three-and-a-half-week period.
After losing a pretty good division lead last month when they dropped six of seven games over a two-week stretch, the Grizzlies have steadied the ship and have won five of their last seven since the all-star break in late January.
“We’re getting back to basics and attention to details,'' said Colley. "I didn’t like the way we played, obviously, leading up to the all-star break, but all the little things add up to two points.''
Colley prefers not to single out individual players, saying, "It's not about one guy, it's about 22 guys in the locker room right now.''
However he did praise the play of goaltender Andrew Engelage, who is 5-1-1 since the all-star break with two shutouts and was recently honored as ECHL Goaltender of the Week for the second time this year. He is second in the league in save percentage (.925) and third in the league goals allowed at 2.43 per game.
“Andrew’s been our backbone,'' says Colley. "He’s doing a great job. We’re all relying on Andrew to play his best and he’s absolutely done that. He’s given us a chance to win every night and when goalies are getting shutouts, everyone’s walking around with their head up.”
Earlier in the year Engelage split time with Jean-Phillippe Lamoureaux, another top goalie who was seventh in the league in goals allowed when he was called up to play in the American Hockey League. Lamoureaux is under contract with Calgary of the NHL, but with no timetable for his return, the Grizzlies are relying on Engelage every night.
"We've got great team chemistry here and are pretty tight as a team, which is important over a long season,'' said Engelage, who believes his team can contend for a title this year. "That's the goal obviously every year. Hopefully we're making strides toward that goal right now and trying to be as successful as possible.''
Kevin Deeth, a rookie from Notre Dame, is the team's leading scorer with 38 points, including 10 goals and 28 assists. The 5-foot-7, 170-pounder from Gig Harbor, Wash., goes against guys a half a foot taller on a nightly basis, but doesn't back down.
"I just want to play and win a championship here in Utah,'' said Deeth. "I think we have all the right pieces here and the coaching staff to do that. Everybody wants that. Sometimes on pro teams everybody's individualistic and but on this team we have a lot of guys that want to win, so that's nice.''
When asked about Deeth, Colley said, "He has been a great pickup. No question, he can play any role with any line.''
Right wing Simon Ferguson, who has taken over as captain with Jake Gannon gone to the AHL, leads the team in goals with 15 and is third in points with 28. Forward Tim Crowder has 30 points on 12 goals and 18 assists.
"The biggest part of our team is our depth,'' said Colley. "We don't just rely on one line to do all the scoring or defensemen to carry the load on the back end. We're deep at every position and the guys are competing at a high level. Everyone is contributing.''