There's a good reason why the Utah Grizzlies are called the "defending" International Hockey League champions.
And, it's probably safe to say that you won't hear any objections about that term coming from Kansas City anytime soon. Especially after the dazzling display the Grizzlies defense and goaltender Tommy Salo exhibited Tuesday night at the Delta Center.Showing its IHL-leading form, Utah's defense held Kansas City scoreless for 591/2 minutes and Salo finished with 31 saves as the Grizzlies clinched their first-round playoff series with a 3-1 victory in Game 5.
No. 3 seed Utah will next face the seventh-seeded Peoria Rivermen in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals that begin this Friday at the Delta Center.
But, first things first. For the moment, the Grizzlies are just relieved that they survived the hard-fought series against the Blades.
"The guys played extremely well. We're just really thankful that we're able to continue on," said Utah coach Butch Goring of the Grizzlies who needed and got two straight wins to claim the opening round 3-2. "We knew it would be a very difficult hockey series. Kansas City is not a No. 6 seed - they certainly played a tremendous series."
As cruel as it may be, not even tremendous was good enough for the Blades. Not when Salo's on the Grizzlies side.
The Swede, who was the IHL MVP last season, only allowed eight goals (1.6 gpg) and posted a .937 save percentage in the five games.
"I said before the series started and during the series, `Tommy Salo is the best goaltender in the IHL,' and I maintain that," Goring said. "He was the difference. Kansas City just couldn't get anything by him."
Blades coach Vasily Tikhonov wasn't about to dispute that.
"Tommy Salo was great - he was the one who won the series," he said. "All the goalies played well, but Salo was the difference."
The Blades did give him a pretty good test, though. They fired 12 shots in his direction in the first 10 minutes alone and were rejected each time. But at the same time, Utah couldn't get anything by K.C. goalie Geoff Sarjeant as both teams went scoreless in the first period on 13 shots.
The Grizzlies drew first blood at the 5:21 mark of the second period when Micah Aivazoff intercepted the puck on a Blades power play and dished it off to Marc Rodgers, who blasted in a slapshot for the short-handed goal.
With the score still 1-0 early in the third, Salo came up with his biggest play of the game when he gloved a one-on-one breakaway attempt to rob Kansas City's Jeff McLean of a goal.
Utah finally got a bit of breathing room five minutes after that as Chris Taylor followed up on two misses for the game-winning goal at the 12:06 mark. He also had the game-winner in Saturday's 3-1 win.
Grizz right winger Andrey Vasiljev iced the game on a break-away goal, his first score of the playoffs, with five minutes left.
Kansas City's Alexei Yegorov spoiled the shutout with just 31 seconds remaining on a power-play slapshot that just got by Salo's shoulder.
"I was a little upset with the last goal. I wanted to keep the zero. But we got the win," Salo said. "It feels great. I can't tell you how good it feels."
GAME NOTES: Sarjeant finished making 43 of 46 saves in the loss . . . Utah's Viktor Gordiouk had a penalty shot in the third period but failed to convert . . . Yan Kaminsky also played a solid game, notching two assists . . . The "fish on the ice" tradition continued in Game 5 as fans threw about 15 trout on the playing surface after Utah's three goals . . . The attendance was 5,927 . . . The Grizzlies, then in Denver, beat the Blades in last year's Turner Cup finals.