Goalie Zach Wiese made an early exit from the first Rochester Grizzlies game of the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament.
Then, he went to work making sure the Grizzlies not only played in, but won, the final game of the North American 3 Hockey League season.
With Wiese standing strong in net through three elimination games and Ben Oakland turning in a tournament Most Valuable Player performance of five goals in four games, Rochester won its first Fraser Cup.
Wiese had a 29-save shutout in the title game and, as he did at least once in each of the four games at the national championships, Oakland provided one of the goals in a 4-0 victory over the Granite City Lumberjacks.
Granite City entered the final with a combined 50-5 record in NA3HL regular-season and playoff games.
“We had a specific game plan for that last game against Granite City and we executed it almost flawlessly,” Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzlaff said. “When we didn’t, Zach Wiese was there to bail us out.
“He had an outstanding season, a great Fraser Cup and especially that championship game was amazing for him.”
Wiese didn’t have a perfect start to the Fraser Cup.
Ratzlaff pulled him in the second period of the opener of Pool A play against the Northeast Generals, the team with the NA3HL’s best regular season record.
“It wasn’t because he was bad, it was because we weren’t good and we were letting him down,” Ratzlaff said of the 4-1 deficit in the 5-2 loss.
The coach said his goalie was upset, but they had a chance to talk about the reasoning.
“He kind of explained it wasn’t my fault,” Wiese said. “It still felt like it was. When you’re a goalie, when you get pulled any time, it kind of feels like your fault.”
The Fraser Cup format left one chance for Wiese and the Grizzlies to recover, if they won three times.
The three-team pool schedule allowed for one day off, then advancement as one of the top two teams if the Grizzlies could win that game. From there, the semifinals and finals decided the title.
Wiese credited a strong effort in the off-day practice with sending him into those games confident.
“I knew next game I’d be ready for what was coming,” Wiese said.
Wiese acknowledged any lingering doubts could have become more significant if the Grizzlies fell behind, but his teammates took care of that by holding the Gillette Wild to six first-period shots.
Justin Wright opened the scoring, then Oakland added a shorthanded goal for a 2-0 lead, in what became a 4-2 victory.
“I kind of knew I had to ramp up my game a little bit and the team helped me out,” said Wiese, who carried a shutout into the third period.
Help in front of him is something Wiese saw often during a season that also included a Central Division title with a 38-6-2-1 record. The team stumbled a bit around Christmas but rolled into the playoffs on a 15-game point streak.
“Defense was doing great,” Wiese said. “When I got shots, they were mostly from the outside. They were keeping guys away from me.”
On the other end of the ice, Wiese watched his teammates get increasingly higher-quality shots as they spent more time getting to the front of the net as the season progressed.
The strong play continued into the divisional portion of the Fraser Cup where the Grizzlies won four of five games by a 23-9 combined margin.
Once through pool play of the Fraser Cup, the Grizzlies rolled with a 4-1 win over the Helena Bighorns in the semifinals before the championship game shutout.
Austin Meers erased a 1-0 deficit in the first minute of the second period of the semifinal on an assist from Adam Johnson and the same combination tacked on an empty-net goal later.
Oakland provided the unassisted game-winner late in the second.
Wiese took it from there with one of his finest games with the championship on the line.
“He’s a very athletic kid,” Ratzlaff said. “In high school and growing up, he was a big football player. He didn’t really focus on just hockey until before two seasons ago when he came to us for his first year.
“There is such a difference between when he first came to us and how he played in that championship game. Just focusing on training for hockey and spending the offseason on the ice more than doing football stuff was really good.
“He’s just a fierce competitor.”
Luke Morrisette opened the scoring midway through the first period of the final game.
Matthew Shaw had two assists, including setting up Max Breon on a two-on-one for a 2-0 lead in the second period.
Oakland scored and Adam Johnson connected on the power play in the third period.
Wright and defenseman Logan Kroyman joined Oakland on the Fraser Cup All-Tournament Team.
The team also included Granite City forward Hayden Walters and defenseman Tal Halliday and Helena goaltender Eric Buchholz.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.