WEST VALLEY CITY — The Utah Grizzlies should start making preparations for an appearance in the lightning round portion of the AHL playoffs, assuming they make the playoffs at all.
The Houston Aeros rallied to beat the Grizzlies 3-2 Friday night, to all but ensure that Utah won't finish in the top six in the Western Conference — which would have meant a first-round playoff bye.
With Utah leading 2-1 thanks to an early third-period goal by Greg Hawgood, the Grizzlies appeared to be in good shape against a struggling Houston team that hadn't scored since the first three minutes.
"I thought we got better as the game went on," said Utah coach Don Hay. "We were kind of back on our heels at the start."
The Grizzlies were assuming that role at the end of the game as well.
Houston's Travis Roche tallied the equalizer at 12:47 on assists from Mark Cullen and Jean-Guy Trudel. Less than two minutes later, Trudel blasted a shot from the right circle that deflected straight down off of Cullen and into the net for the game winner.
"They're a good hockey team. They're in first place for a reason," said Hay. "I'm sure the Houston coach was telling them to put it at the net, we tell our players the same thing. Put it on net and good things can happen."
For the Aeros, it kept their hopes of winning the Western Conference title alive. For the Grizzlies, they can't take anything for granted with six tough games remaining.
Utah entered the game in seventh place, four points behind Hershey and one point clear of Milwaukee in the conference standings. Both of those teams won, and now the Grizzlies find themselves in the precarious eighth spot, just three points ahead of the ninth and 10th place teams, and four points ahead of 11th-place Rochester.
It doesn't get any easier for the Grizzlies.
They face the West Division-leading Aeros in the E Center again tonight, and then wrap up the rare triple-header in Houston Sunday. After that, they host conference-leading Grand Rapids for two games before wrapping up the season at Milwaukee, a team Utah is 2-6 against this year.
Utah can ill afford to squander leads like it did Friday.
Houston's Tony Tuzzolino opened the scoring 2:43 into the game on a shot that trickled past Utah netminder Corey Hirsch, who was playing his first game in Utah in two weeks.
Hirsch was called up by the Grizzlies' NHL affiliate the Dallas Stars on March 10, and he appeared in two games, including a start against Edmonton and ex-Grizz goalie Tommy Salo.
"The first five minutes (I felt rusty), but after that I felt pretty good," said Hirsch, who saved 30 shots in the loss.
Utah's Steve Gainey tied the game at 1-1 late in the second period on assists from Gavin Morgan and Justin Cox, who extended his point streak to six games.
GRIZZ NOTES: An MRI on defenseman Mark Wotton's injured right wrist came back inconclusive Friday. Follow-up tests were conducted, and the team expects the results in a couple of days. Regardless, he's expected to miss the remainder of the regular season, and if a fracture is discovered, he'll miss the playoffs.