To mark his 100th career North American Hockey League game, David Kaplan saved something special for the fans.
Kaplan celebrated his century mark of games in the league with the shootout winner Saturday night in a 3-2 victory over the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks. Kaplan’s strike was the only goal of 10 attempts between the two teams.
The victory marked the third straight win for Kenai River, which is attempting to claw back from a deep hole in the playoff race, and second straight shootout win, and Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said Kaplan’s winner told the story of what kind of player he is.
“He came to the bench after overtime with a broken stick, and said, ‘I’m gonna need a new stick if coach picks me’,” Petrich recalled. “I thought let’s give him a crack at it and put it on his shoulders, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Saturday’s triumph capped a two-game weekend sweep for Kenai River over the Tomahawks, following up a 3-2 regulation win Friday, helping the Bears move to 15-28-1-2, which is 14 points out of the final playoff spot in the Midwest Division. Johnstown falls to 15-28-2-2.
Both the Minnesota Magicians and Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill — the two clubs ahead of the Bears in the standings — lost Saturday contests, giving Petrich hope the Bears can forge a playoff rally.
“We’re still chasing the goal of the playoffs,” he said.
Twice in the first two periods Saturday, Johnstown took the lead with goals, and both times, Kenai River answered. Sutton McDonald tied it up at one apiece midway through the second period, and Zach Krajnik scored late in the second to answer an Andrew Andary goal, tying it at 2-all.
Kevin Lake stood tall in net for Kenai River with 34 saves on 36 shots, and is now 2-2-0 with the Brown Bears after being added to the roster in mid-January. Lake has stopped his last nine shootout shots, going back to a shootout win by the Bears last weekend over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Kevin was excellent this weekend,” Petrich said. “That’s impressive for him, you’ve got to give him props.”
Lake warded off all five shootout strikes from Johnstown’s Ben Schmidling, Andy Nedeljkovic, Joey Baez, Samuel Solensky and Christian Gorscak.
Meanwhile, the first four Brown Bears came up short in the shootout, starting with Krajnik, Skylar Gutierrez, Sacha Guillemain and Markus Komuls, before Kaplan got his turn.
Prior to that, Petrich said Rosa with some important blocks in overtime and Krajfink helped notch several big kills.
“It was a hard-fought game, they came at us non-stop,” Petrich said. “They came at us non-stop, and it was stressful for the coaches. I think I just tripled my gray hair count.”
Friday, the Bears rode a hot power play to a crucial victory. The Bears scored three times with the extra man, including two tallies by Gil Garcia, to top the Tomahawks 3-2. This was after going 2 for 4 on the power play in a 4-3 shootout win against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights on Feb. 10.
The Bears were playing their third game since trading away leading scorer Luke Radetic. Garcia, who now has 20 goals and 12 assists, said everyone must step up.
“I always feel the responsibility,” Garcia said of scoring on the power play. “We have other players that can score, like Sacha (Guillemain) scored tonight.
“But Luke had a good shot, too, and with him gone there is more responsibility.”
Garcia had the lone goal of the first period, when he used assists by Guillemain and Cam McDonald to rip a shot past the blocker of Tomahawks goalie Jack Leavy.
Johnstown tied the game with 9:58 left in the second period on a power-play strike by Samuel Solensky.
But Kenai River’s power play struck again before the period was up, with Guillemain scoring a gritty goal on assists from Filip Karlsson and Eagle River’s McDonald, now fourth in the league in points among defensemen with a goal and 31 assists.
Kenai River had no reason to rest easy with the 2-1 lead headed to the third after losing a 3-1 third-period lead to the Tomahawks in a 4-3 loss on Jan. 6.
“That was probably the worst feeling we had all year and that was the team that did it to us,” Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich said. “We talked about that we didn’t want it to happen again.”
But Johnstown certainly did. Solensky scored to tie the game just 3:09 into the third period.
The major turning point in the game came when Johnstown’s David Schmidling erased his team’s power play by earning a five-minute major for boarding with 7:13 left in the game.
The Tomahawks fought off the Bears power play until there was just one second left.
Komuls took a shot and when the rebound popped out, Garcia stormed the net and scored as the Bears finished 3 for 6 on the power play while Johnstown was 1 for 5.
“It was a battle goal,” Garcia said. “A goal is good no matter how you score it.”
The Tomahawks had several great chances to tie, especially after pulling the goalie with a minute to go, but Kenai River goalie Kevin Lake was good, the Brown Bears’ sticks were active in front of the net, and a few times the puck just didn’t settle for Johnstown.
Petrich loved the strong play in front of both nets.
“We scored two really gritty goals and we had a lot more gritty chances,” Petrich said. “Like I said, this is a team growing up before our eyes.”
Lake made 33 saves for the Bears for his second straight win, while Leavy had 37 for the Tomahawks.
“It feels really good to win in front of the fans,” Garcia said. “The fans got so loud and that was keeping us going.
“We really need them to keep coming.”
With a four-game road trip coming up that includes weekend trips to play Shreveport (Louisiana) and Lone Star (Texas), two of the top eight teams in the NAHL, Petrich said the Bears don’t have much of a choice but to win.
“They are two teams that are very, very high end teams, they do a good job and prepare, but we’ve already shown this year we can play with both of them,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough and fun environment to be in.”
Brown Bears 3, Tomahawks 2
Johnstown 0 1 1 — 2
Kenai River 1 1 1 — 3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Garcia (Guillemain, C. McDonald), pp, 18:50. Penalties — Johnstown 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Johnstown, Solensky (DelPonte), pp, 10:02; 3. Kenai River, Guillemain (Karlsson, C. McDonald), pp, 17:45. Penalties — Johnstown 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Johnstown, Solensky (Kraemer), 3:09; 5. Kenai River, Garcia (Komuls, Guillemain), pp, 17:46. Penalties — Johnstown 4 for 19:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Johnstown 12-13-10—35; Kenai River 11-11-18—40.
Goalies — Johnstown, Leavy (40 shots, 37 saves); Kenai River, Lake (35 shots, 33 saves).
Power plays — Johnstown 1 for 5; Kenai River 3 for 6.
Brown Bears 3, Tomahawks 2, SO
Johnstown 1 1 0 0 0 — 2
Kenai River 0 2 0 0 1 — 3
First period — 1. Johnstown, Schmidling (Solensky), 2:10. Penalties — Johnstown 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, S. McDonald (Spethmann), 10:12; 3. Johnstown, Andary (Szurleg), 12:32; 4. Kenai River, Krajnik (un.), 17:50. Penalties — Johnstown 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Johnstown 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shootout — Johnstown 0 (Schmidling NG, Nedejkovic NG, Baez NG, Solensky NG, Gorscak NG); Kenai River 1 (Krajnik NG, Gutierrez NG, Guillemain NG, Komuls NG, Kaplan G).
Shots on goal — Johnstown 9-10-9-8-0—36; Kenai River 16-12-7-4-0—40.
Goalies — Johnstown, Leavy (39 shots, 37 saves); Kenai River, Lake (36 shots, 34 saves).