Just over two weeks ago, the Utah Grizzlies found themselves scratching for the eighth spot in the National Conference and trying to squeeze into the East Coast Hockey League playoffs.
Fast forward to the present and Utah has vaulted to the four seed in the National Conference standings and now holds home-ice advantage in the first round of the ECHL playoffs against the Las Vegas Wranglers. The best-of-five series opens tonight at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas (8 p.m.).
Although Utah (34-29-4-5) surpassed Las Vegas (34-30-4-4) in the standings by only one point, Utah dominated the regular-season matchup, going 10-4 against the Wranglers and even winning six of seven from Nov. 10-22. But Utah captain Ryan Kinasewich knows that the Grizzlies will see a different Las Vegas team than the one they owned during that stretch. Not to mention that with higher stakes now, Utah can expect the Wranglers’ best shot.
“Everything’s just magnified, every mistake, every chance to score, discipline; it all just means that much more,” Kinasewich said.
The Grizzlies traveled from their regular-season finale against the Victoria Salmon Kings straight to Las Vegas on Sunday for the first two legs of the series. Utah, as the higher seed, chose the series format and decided to save its home dates for the final three games. Coach Kevin Colley hopes to steal at least one game in Las Vegas and bring back a series advantage to Utah for games Saturday and, if needed, Sunday and next Tuesday.
The key, he said, is to put pressure on Las Vegas’ defense, prevent odd-man rushes and get strong goaltending.
The Wranglers “have depth, they’ve got defense and they’ve got goaltending right now,” Colley said. “They’ve become one of the hottest teams in the league.”
Hot for Utah right now is Dylan Hunter, who holds the ECHL’s longest scoring streak at 13, scoring 22 points in that stretch. Kinasewich led the league in goals with 48 and finished third in scoring.
Mikko Koskinen or Mike Morrison will be in goal for Utah. Koskinen is 6-0 with the team since joining in mid-March. Morrison played one game for Utah on April 2, allowing nine goals on 32 shots. However, Morrison does have 229 games of professional experience, including 29 in the National Hockey League.