The prospect of a new year was not enough to lift the Kenai River Brown Bears from the doldrums of a franchise-record losing skid.
The Brown Bears lost a 3-1 North American Hockey League contest Saturday night against the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks. With the loss, Kenai River dropped to 1-30-1 on the season and stretched its franchise-high losing streak to 29 straight games. Since beating Janesville (Wisconsin) Sept. 18 in a 4-3 overtime game, the Bears have scored just one point in the Midwest Division standings, which came Dec. 12 in an overtime loss to New Jersey.
Kenai River lost both games of their two-game series against Johnstown over the week, starting with a 6-3 loss on New Year’s Eve.
On Saturday, the Brown Bears opened the game with a goal scored by newly acquired Finnish forward Miro Lehtimaki, who was added to the Kenai River roster earlier in the day.
Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant said Midwest scout Justin Schreiber spotted Lehtimaki — an 18-year-old from Assat, Finland — just before the holidays at a showcase event, competing for the Iowa Wild in Midget AAA hockey.
“He made a pretty big splash with that goal,” Beauparlant said. “Evan Butcher made a great play in the defensive zone, got the puck out to (Joey) Sardina, who took a long shot and created a second opportunity.”
Beauparlant said it is small victories such as Lehtimaki’s goal that the team is focusing on in order to break the losing streak.
“(Lehtimaki) produced at the Midget level, he’s young and with good size with a high ceiling,” Beauparlant said. “He works hard and likes to play a physical game.”
Another small victory for the Bears was producing a perfect record on the penalty kill over the weekend, something that Kenai River has struggled with this season. The Bears killed all nine penalties in their two games with Johnstown.
“Our players said in the locker room, we were close, we’re not too far away,” Beauparlant said. “They know we have got to keep working on it, and they have the right attitude.”
After taking the early lead with Lehtimaki’s strike, the Bears were unable to make it stand. With 1:17 remaining in the first period, Ryan Burr scored to tie it up at one apiece, then a familiar old foe appeared.
Tomahawks forward Andrew Romano scored on a short-handed attempt with 2:20 left in the second period, giving Johnstown a lead it would not surrender. It was Romano’s eighth point in four games against the Bears this year (five goals and three assists).
The goal was also not the first short-handed score by the Tomahawks against the Bears this week. On New Year’s Eve, Johnstown tied the game up on a short-hander by Casey Linkenheld before taking the lead later in the game.
Beauparlant said the go-ahead strike was one that Kenai River goalie Nicholas Nast wishes he could have back.
“It was a deflating goal, but not as bad as it could’ve been,” he said. “We could’ve had more back pressure from our forwards, but (Romano) made a nice shot over the glove (of Nast).”
Beauparlant said the team was able to take solace in the feeling that the two recent games were the best they had executed all season, something that the Johnstown general manager also took notice of.
“(Johnstown has) twelve 20-year-olds in their lineup, and we have two,” Beauparlant said. “Their GM said it looked like the two hardest-fought games of the year.”
Another recent addition to the team got to see productive ice time as well over the weekend. Beauparlant praised the efforts of defenseman Kyle Martin, who just joined the Bears and debuted Thursday night. Martin, a native of Philadelphia, finished Saturday with a plus-1 points tally.
The 2015 calendar year ended with one more loss for the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The Brown Bears lost their 28th game in a row Thursday with a 6-3 loss to the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks.
Johnstown rallied from a third-period deficit by scoring four times in the final period to cruise to the win on New Year’s Eve. Beauparlant said the tide turned when one of the North American Hockey League’s best players showed up in the late stages.
“Our boys competed the entire game, it was in-your-face hockey,” Beauparlant said. “We had the game in control, and their best player made two spectacular plays.”
Linkenheld, a forward who is committed to Division I Bowling Green State University, scored twice to lift the Tomahawks to the win. Linkenheld tied the game on a short-handed attempt — intercepting the puck on a penalty kill and breaking away into open space to score — less than a minute after the Bears took the lead in the third period, then notched the go-ahead score with 9:21 to play.
Justin Bofshever, who tallied two goals, gave Kenai River a 3-2 lead early in the third period, redirecting a pass from Gunnar Goodmanson.
Cameron Cook was also the recipient of a Goodmanson pass when he scored with 2:06 left in the second period to tie it up at 2-all. Goodmanson took a shot on center net, and Cook was there to help out.
“We had a lot of good energy coming off the break,” Beauparlant said.
However, Linkenfeld proved too potent for the Bears defense in the third period. After his pair of strikes gave Johnstown a 4-3 lead, Adam Pilewicz added an insurance goal with 2:56 remaining in the game, then was followed by an empty-netter from Luke Lynch with 1:08 left.
The Tomahawks outshot the Bears 39-22 overall, including 14-5 in the first period. Brendan Jaquay and Andrew Romano both took advantage of the offensive outburst to score and give the home team a 2-0 lead.
The loss came just two days after Kenai River parted ways with its best player. Brown Bears forward Jack Gessert was shipped off to the Chicago Steel of the ultracompetitive United States Hockey League in a trade on Dec. 29. Gessert was the team leader in points in 2015 with 19 (nine goals, 10 assists). Beauparlant said the Bears will be acquiring assets from the Steel, and said the opportunity to send Gessert up the ladder of player development came quickly.
“We were traveling through Pittsburgh, and we got a call from the Chicago general manager,” Beauparlant said. “We’re in the business of moving players up, and Jack is a guy that has been loyal to our program. It was the right opportunity with the right club.”
Gessert leaves the franchise with 98 points scored over his 2 1-2 seasons with Kenai River. With Gessert gone, the Bears named Adam Kresl as the new team captain Thursday morning.
On the other end of the NAHL career spectrum, Kenai native Ross Hanson made his league debut Thursday night.
“He played well tonight,” Beauparlant said. “I’m proud of how he competed, and we’re excited to have him for Saturday.”
Hanson had played two seasons with the Pikes Peak Miners of the North American Prospects Hockey League before tendering with the Brown Bears in Nov. 2014.
Tomahawks 6, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
Johnstown 2 0 4 —6
1st period — 1. Johnstown, Jaquay (Cmunt, Burr) 2:41; 2. Johnstown, Romano (Hudson), 6:13. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 3. Kenai River, Bofshever (Hartje), 8:42; 4. Kenai River, Cook (Kresl, Fasegha), pp, 17:54. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Johnstown 3 for 6:00.
3rd period — 5. Kenai River, Bofshever (Goodmanson), 5:47; 6. Johnstown, Linkenheld (unassisted), sh, 6:30; 7. Johnstown, Linkenheld (Lynch, Romano), 10:39; 8. Johnstown, Pilewicz (Cmunt), 17:04; 9. Johnstown, Lynch (unassisted), en, 18:52. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 5:00; Johnstown 3 for 17:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 5-10-7—22; Johnstown 14-11-14—39.
Goalies — Kenai River, Baker (35 shots, 33 saves); Johnstown, Lindgren (22 shots, 19 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Johnstown 0 for 4.
Tomahawks 3, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 1 0 0 —0
Johnstown 1 1 1 —3
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Lehtimaki (Sardina), 3:02; 2. Johnstown, Burr (Parrucci, Pilewicz), 18:43. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Johnstown 3 for 6:00.
2nd period — 3. Johnstown, Romano (unassisted), sh, 17:40. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Johnstown 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 4. Johnstown, O’Brien (Jaquay, Suffredini), 17:18. Penalties — Kenai River, 2 for 12:00; Johnstown, 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 11-6-10—27; Johnstown 12-10-11—33.
Goalies — Kenai River, Nast (33 shots, 30 saves); Johnstown, Glander (27 shots, 26 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 5; Johnstown 0 for 5.