The road to the Kelly Cup begins Wednesday for the Utah Grizzlies and it goes through Allen, Texas.
The Grizzlies will square off against the Mountain Division and two-time defending league champion Allen Americans in the first round of the ECHL playoffs. The Grizzlies, who were 14 points out of the final playoff spot in January, finished the regular season with 23 wins in their final 39 games to clinch a 10th consecutive postseason appearance.
"We know we have our work cut out for us and we need to be ready," Grizzlies coach Tim Branham said. "We know what we're up against and they have guys on their team that know how to win, but so do we. We need to make them play defense and possess the puck."
Leading the charge for the Grizzlies will be forwards Erik Bradford and Ralph Cuddemi. Bradford led the club in points with 63 on 17 goals and 46 assists and Cuddemi posted a team-leading 27 goals, good for fifth in the ECHL amongst rookies. C.J. Eick, who scored two goals in the regular season finale against the Missouri Mavericks, is excited about the task at hand.
"We're going to have to play our game, we know we have what it takes to win," Eick said. We have the goaltending in (Ryan) Faragher and (Kevin) Boyle and we know that if we stick together as a club and believe in ourselves, we can be successful."
Indeed, goaltending will be a key if the Grizzlies expect to contend against Allen. Boyle, who is under contract with the Anaheim Ducks but recently returned to Utah, has been exceptional since donning a Grizzly uniform. In 16 games, he is 9-6-1 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. Faragher will also be expected to see some ice time.
It's no accident that the Americans have had success in recent years. Allen will be attempting to do something that has never occurred in ECHL history by reaching a third consecutive finals.
Forward Chad Costello not only led Allen in points with 122 on 33 goals and 89 assists, but also led the entire ECHL for the third consecutive season. Allen is stellar defensively as well. Joel Chouinard led the league with a plus-47 rating on the season.
But for Allen, it begins with the goaltending and the club possesses a stud in Riley Gil. Gil is the all-time wins leader in the league with 48 career playoff wins and tied for the league lead with seven shutouts, and is first in save percentage at .935 with a 2.22 goals-against average.