The Kenai River Brown Bears and the Aston (Pennsylvania) Rebels split Friday and Saturday games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Bears won 4-1 Friday to stretch their home winning streak to four games before losing 3-2 on Saturday.
Kenai River is now 9-26-2-0 and sit 12 points out of a playoff spot in the Midwest Division, while Aston is 30-6-1-0 and is third in the league in points.
“They’re a good team — they have one of the best records on paper,” Kenai River coach Jeff Worlton said. “We battled with them and beat them one night.
“There were not a lot of negatives this weekend.”
Friday, the Bears kept their solid play at home going. While the first three in the streak came against one of the league’s top franchises in Fairbanks, the fourth came against one of the league’s top teams and the league’s top goalie.
The win, which came in front of 591, was against Rebels goaltender Mareks Mitens, who leads the league in goals against at 1.28 and save percentage at .945.
Before Friday, the Bears had not played at home since Nov. 27.
“This whole week felt like a homecoming,” said Kenai River defenseman Preston Weeks, who is from Soldotna. “Everybody was happy to be back and the crowd gave us good energy.”
Aston had just defeated the Bears 3-0 on Jan. 13 and 14. The losses caused Worlton to change his game plan. Instead of trying to generate offense off the forecheck, he went to a 1-3-1 in the neutral zone and waited for the Rebels to make mistakes.
“We played a very conservative style,” Worlton said. “We wanted to slow down their rush and rely on our D zone work and goaltending to keep us in the game.”
Aston coach Joe Coombs said the first game of the Alaska trip is tough, and that too many of his players took the night off. But that’s not the reason the coach said his squad lost.
“I think Jeff did an absolutely outstanding job of preparing his players,” Coombs said. “He should be commended on that.”
As good as the strategy looks in hindsight, Dom Garcia of the Rebels put the plan in danger when he got to a loose puck first with 1 minute, 20 seconds, left in the first period and scored.
Worlton said if his squad had gone down 2-0, he would have had to change strategy. But he gave his team credit for sticking with the plan despite going down 1-0.
“Coach said stick to the system and that’s why we won,” Weeks said. “We didn’t win because of individual talent.”
With 6:18 left in the second period, the Bears got one of those neutral zone turnovers they’d been waiting for it turned into a three-on-two. Luke Radetic scored on assists from Jonathan Marzec and Weeks. Radetic leads the team with 13 goals, but he broke a stretch of six games without a point.
“It was a nice shot,” Worlton said. “That goalie is the real deal. He’s very hard to beat.”
With 15:45 left in the third period, Marzec jumped back onside and got the puck to Radetic, who was blocked by Mitens. But Evan Butcher scored on the rebound.
“We’ve been working with him on going to the gritty areas,” Worlton said of Butcher. “It was good to see him get rewarded.”
Then with 8:44 to play, another turnover resulted in Marzec roofing a nice backhand on assists from Weeks and Butcher.
“They played all night waiting for us to make a mistake, and when we did, they put it in the back of the net,” Coombs said.
Ethan Stewart, assisted by Ryan Mezera and Tyler Rock, closed the game with an empty-netter with 47 seconds left.
Worlton said all the defensemen and goalie Robbie Goor, who made 26 saves, deserve credit for blocking shots and active sticks. Mitens saved 16 for Aston.
“That’s what Bob’s been doing for us, making the saves he has to make,” Worlton said.
Saturday, Aston again took an early lead but Kenai River again stormed back.
Dustin Manz scored for the Rebels with 7:09 left in the first, but Butcher, unassisted, answered with 5:23 left in the first.
Jake Friedman, assisted by Jordan Holmes, had the lone goal of the second period to stake the Bears to a 2-1 lead.
But Brennan Kapcheck and Ryan Patrick scored in the third to boost Aston and send 664 send home disappointed.
“They are just older and maturer and they made some plays,” Worlton said. “I think the moment caught up to our young guys.
“It was a huge turnout, a great turnout by our fans, and it was a playoff-caliber game back and forth.”
Goor made 29 saves for the Bears. For Aston, Jack Leavy had 11 saves and Mitens made one.
The Bears continue play at home Friday and Saturday when they face the Northeast (Massachusetts) Generals, with the puck dropping at 7:30 p.m. each night. Worlton said it is important the Bears keep up their standard of play now that they’ve shown they can play with the league’s top teams.
Brown Bears 4, Rebels 1
Aston 1 0 0 — 1
Kenai River 0 1 3 — 4
First period — 1. Aston, Garcia (Blackmun), 18:40. Penalties — Aston 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Radetic (Marzec, Weeks), 13:42. Penalties — Aston 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Butcher (Radetic, Marzec), 4:15; 4. Kenai River, Marzec (Weeks, Butcher), 11:16; 5. Kenai River, Stewart (Mezera, Rock), en, 19:13. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Aston 8-12-7—27; Kenai River 5-7-8—20.
Goalies — Aston, Mitens (19 shots, 16 saves); Kenai River, Goor (27 shots, 26 saves).