The visiting Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues 3-1 on Saturday and 3-1 on Sunday to complete a three-game North American Hockey League sweep.
The Bears complete a season-opening road trip at 9-3-0-0, good for first place in the Midwest Division. The Jr. Blues are 3-6-0-0 and in seventh in the division.
The next 15 games for the Bears are at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs visit Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for the home-opening weekend. The Ice Dogs are 7-5-0-0, good for fifth in the division.
Kenai River is on a six-game winning streak despite playing eight games in 18 days.
“When the travel schedule came out, with so many games in a short period, it was a concern of ours,” Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said. “We’ve found a way to battle, hang on and get on a decent roll.
“For us to go up there with momentum and get in the community, I think it bodes well. We’re hoping to see a packed house Friday.”
The key to Kenai River’s success has been balanced scoring and lights-out goaltending.
Monday, for the second straight week, Kenai River goalie Nils Wallstrom was named the Midwest Division Star of the Week. Wallstrom is 7-2-0-0 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
Wasilla’s Bryant Marks also has had a good season. He’s committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage and is 2-1-0-0 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
With goaltending like that, having seven players with six of more points through 12 games has been enough to pile up wins.
Shaw also said assistants Jake Leitner and Dean Weasler have the special teams dialed in.
The Brown Bears cruised in Saturday’s game, taking a 2-0 lead after the first period and outshooting the Blues 40-24.
Bryce Monrean, assisted by Hunter Newhouse, and Ryan Finch, assisted by Casper Conradsson Kelvgaard, put the Bears up in the first.
“We got off to a fast start,” Shaw said. “We had even more opportunities to open it up. I think we had three or four breakaways in the second period where we hit the post.”
In the third, Garrett Drotts, assisted by Nick Stevens, made it 3-0. Nikita Nikora broke up the shutout with a short-handed goal.
Marks had 23 saves for the Bears, while Carson Dorfman stopped 37 for the Blues.
Sunday, Kenai River overcame an early deficit with three unanswered goals.
After a scoreless first, Nikora got Springfield on the board. Monrean, assisted by Newhouse, and Noah Holt, assisted by Luke Hause, put the Bears up 2-1 headed to the third.
Stevens scored on the empty net with 1:10 left to ice the game.
Wallstrom made 42 saves, while Aksel Reid stopped 39 for Springfield.
“As the game went on, we got better,” Shaw said. “Nils played well again.”
Bears look for host families, volunteers
The Kenai River Brown Bears are still looking for a few host families and volunteers for home games for the upcoming season.
Host families get a small stipend for meals and also get tickets to the games. The team returns to Alaska in the next week and will be in the state, with a few brief road trips to the Lower 48, through at least the end of the regular season April 15. Head coach Taylor Shaw said good billet families are vital to the organization and the team would not exist without them.
Potential host families or volunteers can find a complete schedule on nahl.com. Those interested can contact Shaw at 320-293-0405 or Weasler at 612-203-3306.
Brown Bears 3, Jr. Blues 1
Kenai River 2 0 1 —3
Springfield 0 0 1 —1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Monrean (Newhouse), 3:56; 2. Kenai River, Finch (Conradsson Kelvgaard), 9:14. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Drotts (Stevens), 6:53; 4. Sprinfield, Nikora (Lonsdale), sh, 14:34. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 15-12-13—40; Springfield 8-9-7—24.
Goalies — Kenai River, Marks (24 shots, 23 saves); Springfield, Dorfman (40 shots, 37 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 2; Springfield 0 for 5.
Brown Bears 3, Jr. Blues 1
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
Springfield 0 1 0 —1
First period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Springfield, Nikora (Borgula, Miner), 1:24; 2. Kenai River, Monrean (Newhouse), 5:42; 3. Kenai River, Holt (Hause), pp, 17:10. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Stevens (un.), en, 18:50. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 14-19-9; Springfield 13-16-14.
Goalies — Kenai River, Wallstrom (43 shots, 42 saves); Springfield, Reid (41 shots, 39 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Springfield 0 for 4.