West Valley City • Too many Utah Grizzlies players were passengers Sunday, by coach Tim Branham's account. The penalty? Another bus ride to Loveland, Colo.
The Grizzlies blew a close-out opportunity in a 5-2 loss to Colorado at the Maverik Center in a first-round playoff series in the East Coast Hockey League.
Passengers? That's how Branham labeled some of his players, just along for the ride. "We had too many guys waiting for the next guy to make plays," he said, "or didn't give us their full effort."
That explains how the Grizzlies failed to expand their 2-0 lead after the middle of the game, and allowed three goals in a two-minute stretch late in the second period. And now their series lead is down to 3-2, with Game 6 (and Game 7, if necessary) on the road.
They may not make it back to West Valley City this season, which is why Sunday's turnaround felt so stunning. "It's a game of momentum, especially in the playoffs," said the Grizzlies' Jon Puskar. "One time, you're buzzing. The next time, you're on your heels. That's playoff hockey."
The Grizzlies understand this stuff. The franchise remains the last Utah professional sports team to win a playoff series, having beaten Idaho last April before losing to Ontario. The reminder of what the playoffs feel like came in the last minute as fans trudged up the aisles in disgust, after having been primed for a celebration — and more hockey to come in this building.
Playoffs in minor-league sports draw only devoted fans, once the promotional schedule ends. The Grizzlies' attendance of 5,369 was impressive Saturday, and Sunday's crowd of 3,532 was respectable. The tradeoff is those fans took the defeat hard, recognizing it may have been their last chance to watch this team.
Since the Grizzlies were eliminated in the second round last spring, Utah's other pro franchises have struck out. The Pioneer League's Orem Owlz were the only minor-league baseball team to qualify for the playoffs in 2015, and they lost to Idaho Falls in extra innings in the deciding game of the semifinals. Real Salt Lake missed the Major League Soccer playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. This month, the Jazz matched their longest NBA playoff absence of the Utah era, four years.
The Grizzlies were "excited to once again represent Utah in [the] playoffs," according to their Twitter account. And then the team followed through by winning three of the first four games vs. Colorado, losing only in triple overtime on the road in Game 2. The No. 6-seeded Grizzlies were positioned to knock out the Eagles and await the Cincinnati-Fort Wayne winner in the Western Conference semifinals.
That's what made Game 5 so interesting. Dating to 2008, the Grizzlies were 5-0 in series-clinching games. In this case, the pressure intensified because of the prospect of having to go back to Colorado — not that the home team responded especially well.
The Grizzlies were "complacent right from the start of the game," Branham said. Yet when Puskar scored on a power play and Matt Berry added another goal, the Grizzlies surged ahead. They missed several chances to further build the lead, and then everything crumbled on them. After goaltender Ryan Faragher kept the Eagles off the scoreboard for 37 minutes, Colorado suddenly delivered three goals, with Jesse Mychan scoring twice in even-strength situations and assisting on a power-play goal.
"We made some bad mistakes, one right after the other," Branham said.
And then he said what everybody already knew about this missed opportunity to advance in the playoffs, right here and now: "We made it hard on ourselves."