In desperation, the Las Vegas Thunder and their fans literally threw everything they had at the Utah Grizzlies Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Oranges. Garbage. Cheap shots. And a furious comeback.But, playing with the heart of the defending Turner Cup champions, the Grizzlies withstood them all en route to an impressive 7-4 victory and, in doing so, claimed the Western Conference championship series four games to two.
Afterward, the Thunder could only toss out the notion that having the IHL's best regular-season record (57-17-8) guaranteed a trip to the Turner Cup Finals. Instead, it will be the Grizzlies who make a return visit to the IHL championships to face either Cincinnati or Orlando, who play the decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight in Cincinnati.
"It's a fabulous win for us, particularly beating Las Vegas. They had the best team in the league all year and they had an outstanding season," said Utah coach Butch Goring. "We knew this was going to be a terrific challenge for us. We had lots of confidence and thought we could beat them. We knew it wasn't going to be easy and it wasn't."
Carrying momentum over from its come-from-behind 5-3 win in Game 5 on Monday, the Grizz surprisingly made it look easy for the first half of the game. Powered by a strong defensive effort, Utah rolled out to a commanding 5-0 lead late in the second period.
Left winger Andrey Vasiljev made a spinning move around Thunder defenseman Jeff Ricciardi and then beat Las Vegas goalie Rick Knickle, a surprise starter, for a 1-0 lead at the 9:28 mark of the first period. Utah defenseman Victor Ignatjev then put the Grizz up 2-0 by following up on a Vasiljev miss later in the opening stanza.
The Grizz carried that 2-0 lead into the second period when Goring again showed why he's the reigning IHL coach of the year.
After Vegas defenseman Ruslan Salei had been slapped with an interference penalty, Goring demanded that referee Greg Kimmerly examine the stick of goaltender Pokey Reddick. Kimmerly measured the stick and then penalized Reddick, who had just subbed into the game after being benched for the first period. The two infractions gave the Grizzlies a 5-on-3 man-advantage for two minutes.
It ended up being the turning point of the game as Brett Lievers, the hero in Game 5, and Scott Arniel both notched goals in the two-minute period to give the Grizz a big 4-0 lead midway through the game.
"I thought it was a big moment for us to really, really blow the game open, so I thought it was worth the risk," said Goring of his decision to check the stick that would have resulted in a Utah penalty if it hadn't have been illegal.
"Touche. Touche," said Thunder coach Chris McSorley, who was impressed with Goring's decision. "You live by the stick, you die by the stick."
Ignatjev then fired a slapshot just as a power-play expired for Utah's fifth goal at 13:38 of the second. That's when the Vegas fans started to pelt the Grizzlies with oranges.
McSorley, upset with all the fish-throwing at the Delta Center, had suggested that fans throw oranges after Thunder goals but the spectators couldn't wait any longer so they began their bombardment.
And as soon as the cleaning crew had cleared the mess, the Thunder responded with the beginning of their comeback.
Just 14 seconds after Ignatjev's goal, Las Vegas defenseman Jeff Serowik beat Utah goalie Tommy Salo with a long wrist shot to trim the lead to 5-1 going into the third period.
The Thunder scored two straight goals at the beginning of the third to cut the deficit to 5-3 with just under 11 minutes to play to make things pretty interesting in the final half-period of play.
The Grizzlies, however, survived the Thunder comeback bid as Salo and the defense came up with several huge saves in the waning moments. Utah finally got some breathing room when Andy Brickley intercepted a Vegas pass and dished a perfect pass to Arniel for a goal with three minutes remaining.
"They were going to give one last desperate effort. They were looking at the end of their season," said Brickley of the Thunder. "They're just too good of a team and have too much pride to just quit at 5-0 - and they didn't. They had us on our heels for awhile."
Serowick managed to score only 18 seconds later, but it was too little and too late. Marc Rodgers added some salt to the Thunder's wounds by scoring an open-net goal in the final minute.
"You never expect a game like that," added Brickley, who plays with a torn ACL in his knee. "We felt we were prepared and we were anxious to play the game. We were excited to play today. We felt we might have the edge coming into Game 6 after winning Game 5."