Utah Grizzlies have high hopes as ECHL playoffs open
West Valley City • Armed with their highest postseason seed in 14 years, the Utah Grizzlies open the ECHL playoffs Friday night against Bakersfield.
They have high hopes.
After languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings until Christmas, Utah surged down the stretch and has the look of a legitimate contender as the playoffs begin.
"We're playing well," said first-year coach Tim Branham. "We're confident we can get the job done.
The Grizzlies won only seven of their first 21 games a stretch that included two losses at Bakersfield. But they won 23 of their last 33 games to earn the No. 3 seed in the West and earn home-ice advantage against No. 6 Bakersfield.
The coaches in this series aren't strangers.
The Condors' Troy Mann and Branham worked in the Washington Capitals' organization last year.
Branham was an assistant coach with the ECHL's Reading (Pa.) Royals, who won the Kelly Cup. Mann was an assistant with AHL's Hershey (Pa.) Bears.
Their backgrounds will impact in the Utah-Bakersfield series.
"We have similar styles," Branham said. "I assume these are going to be low-scoring games defensive battles. Special teams could be the thing that decides it."
At 85.9 percent, Bakersfield finished fourth in the ECHL in killing penalties. Utah ranked fifth after stopping 85.6 percent of its opponents' power plays.
"This is going to be a tough series they are a good team," Branham said. "They play hard, they finish checks and they have guys who can put the puck in the net."
The Grizzlies went 4-2 against Bakersfield during the season.
After allowing nine goals and losing twice early, Utah beat the Condors four straight times. In those losses, Bakersfield scored only six goals.
With Igor Bobkov playing with AHL affiliate Norfolk, Aaron Dell will handle all of Utah's goaltending in the playoffs. He went 19-7-0-3 with an impressive 2.14 goals-against average during the season.
"He's more than capable, obviously," Branham said.
The Condors will counter with Laurent Brossoit, who was 26-9-2-0 during the year with a goals-against average of 2.01.
"They have a really good goaltender," Branham said, "and a good goaltender can win you a lot of hockey games."
Offensively, the Grizzlies are led by David Vallorani (24 goals) and Danick Paquette (23 goals).
Highly-regarded prospect Charles Sarault has contributed lately, too. Since joining Utah on March 8, he has three goals and eight assists in eight games.
In addition, Norm Ezekiel and Teigan Zahn have been assigned to the Grizzlies for the playoffs.
"We have some tough choices to make, about who's going to play," Branham said. "â¦ Up front, we have a lot of good forwards. But these are the playoffs and everybody has to accept their role."
Utah will be without No. 3 scorer Mathieu Aubin, who suffered a fractured neck on April 9 against Las Vegas and underwent surgery two days later.
"He seems to be doing well," said Branham. "He'll be sitting out about eight weeks and that's a big loss for us. He's won two championships on this level and one on the next level. So it's a big blow."
Grizzlies playoff schedule
The schedule for the best-of-seven ECHL playoff series between Utah and Bakersfield:
Friday • Bakersfield at Utah, 7 p.m.
Saturday • Bakersfield at Utah, 7 p.m.
April 22 • Utah at Bakersfield, 8 p.m.
April 24 • Utah at Bakersfield, 8 p.m.
x-April 25 • Utah at Bakersfield, 8 p.m.
x-April 27 • Bakersfield at Utah, 7 p.m.
x-April 30 • Bakersfield at Utah, 7 p.m.
x if necessary