The Stockton Thunder have spent most of the month of February on the road, last night’s contest with the Utah Grizzlies only their second home game. Their season long 7 game road trip turned into a five game series against the red-hot Alaska Aces after the San Francisco Bulls folded in late January. Two extra games with the Aces were added to the schedule after meeting both the Bakersfield Condors and the Ontario Reign, all teams who have dominated moving into the second half of the season. The Thunder won two out of the seven games on the road and their five game series with Alaska was physically and emotionally taxing. They were only able to muster one win up in the Great White North, with more penalties being handed out than points. They won big 4-3 in the last game with the Aces, racking up 3 power play goals coming from forwards Joey Martin, Greg Miller and Mitch Bruijsten. Thunder netminder Brian Foster had a game commanding performance and the team contained Alaska’s top scoring line of Peter Sivak, Nick Mazzolini and Brendan Connelly, who put up an impressive 29 points over 5 games, holding them to one goal.
Utah has also been on the road, with a nine game road trip, but unlike the Thunder, the Grizzlies would come out with a 6-2-0-1 record. Grizzlies goaltending duo Aaron Dell and Igor Bobkov have been a big factor in the team’s success. Both goalies have earned ECHL Goaltender awards, with Dell earning the CCM ECHL Goaltender of the Week for the last week of January and Bobkov garnering the same award the following week. Dell also earned the Warrior Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the Month award for the month of January for his impressive overall performance. Needless to say, the team has been on a hot streak and the Stockton Thunder knew that goals would be hard to come by.
Thunder forward Greg Miller said, “They are a hot team right now and he (Dell) is a great goalie so I think just traffic in front, trying to take his eyes away is huge, with any goalie, not letting him see the play.”
Indeed, goals would be hard to come by for both teams, although the scoring chances were there on both sides. Both goalies, Thunder minder Milner and Grizzlies tender Dell put on a goalie clinic on their respective sides of the ice, but it would be Parker Milner that shut the door on Utah’s offense, blanking the Grizzlies 1-0.
“Milner had to make some big saves, especially at the end,” said Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm. “That glove save he made in traffic was huge. It’s good to see him get a shutout, it’s well-deserved. Both our goaltenders have been playing very well, and its nice to see him get rewarded tonight.”
The first period of play between the Thunder and the Grizzlies went scoreless, but Stockton dominated the play, Utah only holding it in the offensive zone long enough for 4 shots on goal. The defensive Thunder core held the Grizzlies at bay, breaking up any zone entries at the blue line and feeding their Stockton forwards pucks.
“We stayed with our game and we limited their scoring chances,” said Kromm. “It was a real positive defensive effort all around tonight. The best part of it for me tonight was we were really competing hard defensively, we really shut them down and didn’t give them alot of chances.”
After a quiet first period from the Utah Grizzlies, they stepped it up a notch in the first half of the second, peppering Thunder netminder Milner with shots. He took it in stride, expecting the onslaught.
“It’s tough sometimes when you have that quiet first,” said Milner. “It’s easier to get 10 or 15 shots in the first and get in the game. But it’s important to stick with it because you know they are going to come out hard.”
Utah spent most of the rest of the second period on the penalty kill, but held the league-leading Thunder power play scoreless, a testament to the Grizzlies strength on the kill. Greg Miller broke the scoring drought late in the second, netting a team high 17th goal of the season. The play began with defenseman Ryan Constant rifling a shot from the left circle, which Joey Martin collected. He fired it off the post and Miller drove it home.
“Boutin made a great play, he kind of pinched in to keep the cycle alive for us, and I just backed him up,” Miller said of the goal. “I moved it over to Constant and then he looked like he was going to fake it but shot it to the net and Martin got a piece of it. It kind of hit the post and I went to the net hard and good things happen.”
The third period began with a parade of penalties for the Grizzlies. The penalty killing unit kept the Thunder off the scoreboard and netminder Aaron Dell made some spectacular saves as Stockton forwards James Henry and Joey Martin buzzed the net, with near misses that could have added to the shot total.
“I think we did really well tonight at not letting the frustration get to us which can be very difficult sometimes, said Miller. “You gotta continue to battle and work hard . You can’t let that drag you down because mentally that can be detrimental to your game. Blocking that out is something you have to work on as a forward. You have to work hard every shift.”
Utah poured on the pressure in the final minutes of play, as desperation for a goal set in. Milner was forced to make several key saves but it would be Ryan Constant who captured the save of the game with just 16 seconds left. With Milner tied up on the side of the net, the puck popped out and Constant cleared the puck to safety.
“He made a big play there,” said Kromm. “Everybody has to collapse to the house and help out in those kind of situations.”
Milner was upset at the last ditch scramble by Utah at the end because he had tied up the puck with his glove only to have it dug out by Utah’s forward.
“On the initial shot I had the puck under my glove clearly and the guy came and jammed it out,” said Milner. “I thought the guys did a great job bearing down on them in the ensuing face-off and Constant got a great clear and it ended up being perfect because it took all the time off. It’s great to play behind a team when we play that defensive, it’s easier for me.”
One last offensive draw for Utah, but Thunder’s Martin would win and Constant sent it down the ice, nearly netting an empty net goal, and running the clock to zero. The two teams collided in a post game scrum, as the frustration boiled over.
The Stockton Thunder and Utah Grizzlies played in front of over 8000 fans for Star Wars night. It was a nice homecoming for the team that had struggled on the road and the win on home ice puts fuel in the tank before they head out to face the Colorado Eagles for a three game series in Loveland, CO next weekend. The Thunder have lost top Dman Mike Dalhuisen who was dealt to the San Antonio Rampage by the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in advance of Saturday night’s game. In exchange, the team picks up forward Adam Brace, who previously played with the Cincinnati Cyclones and the Rampage.
Brace made his debut on Saturday night against the Grizzlies and Coach Kromm had positives to say of his game. “He competes hard for the puck. I can tell he’s smart and he’s going to be able to create a lot of scoring opportunities. He’s got a nice touch around the net and I can see he’s got potential to be a real dangerous player for us.”
The Stockton Thunder will face the Colorado Eagles Feb 21-22-23 for a three-in-three weekend series before coming back home to take on the Ontario Reign on March 2nd.
Utah returns home to meet the Idaho Steelheads for a four game series, three on home ice and one away beginning Monday February 17th.