It has been 12 years since the Utah Grizzlies got as far in the postseason as they did this season.
Yes, that was in the AAA-level International Hockey League, and the Grizzlies won the Turner Cup for the second straight year in 1995-96, their first season in Utah.
But in 2007-08, their third year in the AA-level ECHL and their first season of again being affiliated with the New York Islanders, the Grizzlies made their way back to some respectability.
They won two playoff series, despite being underdogs in both, before succumbing in the National Conference Finals of the Kelly Cup playoffs in four games to the Las Vegas Wranglers.
Utah won its first-ever Kelly Cup playoff games this past season and finished with an 8-7 postseason record for 2008.
The Grizzlies had an odd regular season, playing just .500 at home, 15-15-2-4, and not winning a game in March 0-7-2-3 as the inevitable player call-ups took a toll. But they had an eight-game road-win streak, Jan. 29-Feb. 29. And they were 17-15-0-4 away from home perhaps a reflection of a youthful club that felt more pressure in the E Center than on the trail.
They improved in the regular season to 16th in the ECHL from 24th in 2006-07.
"Nobody wants to lose out in the conference finals like we did," said Grizzlies coach Jason Christie, who will be retained for next season, said club owner David Elmore.
"But overall, I like how the guys really (came) together there at the start of the playoffs. We went up against three really good teams (higher-seeded Fresno, Victoria and Las Vegas), and I thought we went out, and we matched up well."
In the postseason, Utah got many of its called-up players back from AHL Bridgeport and even the Islanders (goalie Mike Mole).
"Even in the finals round against Vegas we had a lot of chances and just couldn't capitalize on them," Christie said. He had the feeling that if Ryan Kinasewich could have converted a 2-on-1 early at Vegas, the series might have been different. "We didn't have that next step."
For the season, he said, "What I liked is how game-in and game-out our guys competed mentally and physically. They took pride in what they wanted to get accomplished.
"It was enjoyable going to the rink just to be able to work with these kids that wanted to be at the next level and were going to work to be able to get there. We were young this year, and they went out and competed hard. They were just one phone call away. The Islanders have been first-class," Christie said.
That's how having the Islander affiliation helped. Even free agents signed by Utah got their chances. Two of them, defensemen Scott Ford and Andy Sertich, played most of the season in Bridgeport, and on Feb. 28, both were signed to contracts with the Islanders' organization.
Other Grizzlies free-agent signees like veterans Kinasewich and Scott Burt and rookie Ryan Cruthers got some time with Bridgeport.
"That's a thrill for the kids," Elmore said. "That's what makes it better for us. Given a choice, I think they'd rather play for a team that, if they play well, they get a chance to go up even if they weren't signed by the Islanders."
That can only improve Utah's chances of signing quality free agents a process Christie is already working on.
Christie indicated he'd like to have much of his team back, but he won't stand in the way of free agents who have the chance to sign in Europe or with AHL teams, and much of the 2008-09 Grizzlies' team will depend upon whether the Islanders promote young guys like Mole, Tyler Haskins, Keith Johnson, Micheal Haley, Jeff Dwyer, Justin Bourne, Olivier Labelle or Andrew MacDonald, and the players the Islanders pick up in the offseason.
Kinasewich became the third-leading scorer in the Grizzlies' 14 years, scoring 23 goals and 37 assists in 44 games. He needs 75 points to surpass career leader Chris Taylor (1994-98) and just 13 to take over No. 2 from John Purves. Kinasewich and Burt tied as Utah's scoring leaders for '07-'08 with 60 points each. Johnson and Haskins led in the playoffs with 16 and 15, respectively.
Elmore said having the Islanders as a partner again like in their mid-90s glory days is good. "We were very pleased, particularly when we got our players back. We were pleased that we had the run that we did.
"In my opinion it makes a difference for us to have an affiliation. The Islanders have been the one we've had the best luck with, so we're pleased to have them back again."
The Grizzlies, who averaged 3,833 fans during the regular season, 14th in the ECHL, and a 10th-place 3,421 in the playoffs, did not break even this season, Elmore said. "No. We're not yet I'm hoping over the next couple years. I do believe that within the next two years we'll get there."
He bases his optimism on winning and a sales force that seems to be doing well. "I think it will get better. I think over the next two years you'll see a real improvement in our overall performance, not just on the field but in the stands, all of it," Elmore said."You've got to take baby steps. I'd be thrilled if we could get to 4,500. That might take two years. It will be OK."
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