The visiting Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues 4-1 on Friday and lost 8-0 on Saturday in the first two games of a pivotal three-game series.
With just 14 games to play, Kenai River is 13 points behind Springfield for the final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. The Jr. Blues have 13 games left.
The Bears are 17-24-3-2 and also play Springfield (24-19-3-1) on Sunday with a chance to make up more ground.
“We’ve been focusing on the process, just period-to-period hockey,” Kenai River interim head coach Dan Bogdan said. “Yes, it’s pretty much a must-win series, but we want the guys to stay in the moment.”
The reason Kenai River is fighting for its playoff life is due to trouble scoring goals. After Friday’s game, the Bears were tied for the second-lowest goal total in the league, denting the net just 2.3 times per game.
Kenai River’s defense is tied for eighth in the league, though, making the Bears dangerous when they put the puck in the net like on Friday. Kenai River had earned 11 points in its last seven games through Friday, averaging three goals per game during that time.
“Really, it’s just having the guys play a little looser,” said Bogdan, who is assisted by Justin Adams. “Instead of rushing with the puck, take your time and make a decision.
“One thing we talked about as a coaching staff, Justin and I, is not to be afraid to make a mistake. Just go for it.”
Bogdan said the forwards are doing more than just scoring goals. He said they are backchecking and forechecking very well, leading to turnovers and more scoring chances.
Eagle River’s Connor Canterbury got the scoring started 8 minutes, 22 seconds, into the game with help from Logan Ritchie. The shot from the point through traffic was the first NAHL goal for Canterbury. Ben Schmidling tied it for Springfield less than two minutes later.
In the second period, the Bears took control when Michael Spethmann scored on an assist from Andy Walker and Jackson Nauss lit the lamp with help from Walker and Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik. Bogdan said Springfield was putting a lot of pressure on early in the second until Kenai River’s Trey LaBarge dropped the gloves with Springfield’s Sam Sterne. LaBarge scored a win to turn the momentum.
With 4:39 left in the game, Spethmann iced it with help from Markuss Komuls and Krajnik.
Gavin Enright stopped 23 for the Bears, while Janis Voris saved 21 for the Jr. Blues. In the third period, Jr. Blues leading scorer Brandon Puricelli had what looked like a sure goal to cut the gap to 3-2, but Enright reached back across the crease to deny Puricelli. Bogdan said the save should be the top play of the week in the NAHL.
Saturday, the Jr. Blues came back to dominate the Bears, with Nikita Kozyrev netting a hat trick and Puricelli getting three assists. Enright had 30 saves, while Jack Williams stopped all 23 for the Jr. Blues.
The squads play at 1:05 p.m. AST Sunday.
Brown Bears 4, Jr. Blues 1
Kenai River 1 2 1 — 4
Springfield 1 0 0 — 1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Canterbury (Ritchie), 8:22; 2. Springfield, Schmidling (Techel, Osborne), pp, 9:57. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Spethmann (Walker), 4:22; 4. Kenai River, Nauss (Walker, Krajnik), 7:44. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 17:00; Springfield 2 for 15:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Spethmann (Komuls, Krajnik), 15:21 Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 9-8-8—25; Springfield 7-11-6—24.
Goalies — Kenai River, Enright (24 shots, 23 saves); Springfield, Voris (25 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Springfield 1 for 2.
Jr. Blues 8, Brown Bears 0
Brown Bears 0 0 0 — 0
Springfield 3 2 3 — 8
First period — 1. Springfield, Aird (Stewart, Kuchera), 5:52; 2. Springfield, Kozyrev (Puricelli, Techel), 6:47; 3. Springfield, Brainin (Jensen, Schmidling), 9:27. Penalties — none.
Second period — 4. Springfield, Kozyrev (Puricelli, Osborne), 12:25; 5. Springfield, Villegas (Swanson, Osborne), 12:47. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 17:00; Springfield 6 for 23:00.
Third period — 6. Springfield, Nelson (Swanson), 2:32; 7. Springfield, Kozyrev (Puricelli), 16:26; 8. Springfield, B. Schmidling (D. Schmidling, Brainin), 18:12. Penalties — Springfield 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-7-9—23; Springfield 13-10-15—38.
Goalies — Kenai River, Enright (38 shots, 30 saves); Springfield (23 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 6; Springfield 0 for 0.