Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Preston Weeks couldn’t stop smiling before Friday’s North American Hockey League game against the Amarillo (Texas) Bulls at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The 20-year-old couldn’t stop smiling after the weekend was over, either.
By suiting up Friday for the 232nd time, Weeks broke the NAHL career record for games played, taking it from Skylur Jameson, who played for the Wichita Falls (Kansas) Wildcats from 2004-05 to 2007-08.
What Weeks really wanted, though, was victories over one of the top teams in the league. He got that when the Bears held off the Bulls, 3-2, Friday before downing Amarillo 5-1 on Saturday.
Before the Friday game, Weeks’ record was announced and he saluted his hometown crowd.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” Weeks said. “I was so appreciative. Those fans have traveled the whole road with me — win or lose.”
Friday and Saturday night, it was wins over the Bulls, who have the second-best record in the league at 39-10-2-3.
Kenai River picked up a vital victories in the playoff chase, huge for Weeks because the Bears didn’t make the playoffs in his first four years here.
The Bears are 27-19-3-3, good for 60 points and third in the Midwest Division. The Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel are in second with 62 points, while the Minnesota Magicians are in fourth with 51 and the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets are currently out of the playoffs with 50.
With the playoff chase heating up, Weeks was asked Friday if the win or the record meant more.
“The win for sure,” he said. “That was icing on the cake. That was all I cared about — getting hot going into the playoffs.”
The win came due to special-teams play in the second period. With 12:05 left in the period, Kenai River’s Brandon Lajoie was given a five-minute major and game misconduct for slashing. Making matters worse, Amarillo’s Niclas Puikkonen scored with the extra man before the Bears could draw a whistle by touching the puck.
Then came the biggest play of the game. Off the faceoff, Adam Szubert got the puck to Anchorage’s Max Helgeson, who threw a shot on net that Logan Ritchie tipped in past goalie Charlie Glockner.
“That’s a big goal,” Amarillo head coach Rocky Russo said. “It was a poor job by our goaltender. He was off-balance and out of position.”
Both Weeks and Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said the tip by Ritchie gave the team momentum in killing off the power play.
“We didn’t have our legs under us,” Russo said. “Our compete level wasn’t there. That’s on our guys. They’ve been here long enough to adjust to the time change and the travel.”
Then with 1:58 left in the second, Anchorage’s Max Osborne drove all the way to the net from the top of the faceoff circle and scored.
Russo was not happy about the failure in coverage by a forward and his goalie getting beat short side, under the bar.
“That was an unbelievable play by Ozzie,” Murdock said, also noting that Amarillo has two of the top power-play defensemen in the league and they were out of the lineup.
With 7:55 left in the third period, Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik got a pass from JJ Boucher and entered the zone with speed, leaving the puck for Helgeson. Helgeson patiently beat Glockner, who saved 37 of 40, for a 3-1 lead.
“Those are two of the most skilled guys on the ice,” Weeks said of Krajnik and Helgeson. “When they’re out there, good things happen.”
Amarillo didn’t go away, scoring with the extra skater with 44 seconds left and pressing through the final seconds. Kenai River’s Landon Pavlisin, who saved 33 of 35, was able to shut the door.
Murdock said the Bears didn’t want to lose the night Weeks set the record.
“It was in the back of my mind the better part of the night,” Murdock said. “The main thing is we want to play better hockey and play the right way. If we do that, we will win some games.”
Murdock gave credit to Krajnik for leading the forwards, who were down to 11 when the game started due to an injury and suspension, then were down to just 10 after Lajoie received his game misconduct.
Saturday, Jack Quinn had a hat trick for the Bears. Quinn scored twice in the first period, along with Anchorage’s Skyler Gutierrez, to give the Bears a 3-0 lead.
Wasilla’s Porter Schachle, who has been in and out of the lineup recently with injuries and illness, scored with 9:42 left in the second period for a 4-0 lead. After Jack Mesic cut it to 4-1 late the second, Quinn completed his hat trick with 6:59 left in the game.
Pavlisin stopped 33 for the Bears, while Max Gutjahr allowed two goals on six shots and Glockner allowed three on 44.
Kenai River will host the Northeast (Massachusetts) Generals on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex. Northeast picked up three points in a two-game series at Fairbanks this weekend.
Brown Bears 3, Bulls 2
Amarillo 0 1 1 —2
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
First period — none. Penalties — Amarillo 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Amarillo, Puikkonen (Murtazin, Stapleton), 7:55; 2. Kenai River, Ritchie (Helgeson, Szubert), sh, 8:03; 3. Kenai River, Osborne (Krajnik, Szubert), pp, 18:02. Penalties — Amarillo 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 25:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Helgeson (Krajnik, Boucher), 12:05; 5. Amarillo, Black (Tongue), 19:16. Penalties — Amarillo 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Amarillo 13-10-12—35; Kenai River 16-13-11—40.
Goalies — Amarillo, Glockner (40 shots, 37 saves); Kenai River, Pavlisin (35 shots, 33 saves).
Power plays — Amarillo 0 for 2; Kenai River 1 for 3.
Amarillo 0 1 0 —1
Kenai River 3 1 1 —5
First period — 1. Kenai River, Quinn (Moline, Osborne), 3:26; 2. Kenai River, Gutierrez (Poellinger, Tucker), 4:41; 3. Kenai River, Quinn (Moline, Szubert), 10:35. Penalties — Amarillo 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Schachle (Dodge, Morgan), 10:18; 5. Amarillo, Mesic (White, Stapleton), 18:03. Penalties — Amarillo 6 for 20:00; Kenai River 3 for 14:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Quinn (Helgeson, Moline), 13:01. Penalties — Amarillo 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Amarillo 9-9-16—34; Kenai River 18-22-10—50.
Goalies — Amarillo, Max Gutjahr (6 shots, 4 saves), Glockner (44 shots, 41 saves); Kenai River, Pavlisin (34 shots, 33 saves).