Whether it was the tryptophan from Thanksgiving Day turkey or the pressure of maintaining a win streak, the Kenai River Brown Bears couldn’t find the winning touch Friday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The first-place Brown Bears lost 6-4 to the last-place Minnesota Magicians in a North American Hockey League Midwest division clash. The loss also snapped Kenai River’s 10-game win streak, the longest in team history, while the win for Minnesota broke a nine-game losing skid.
Saturday’s game wasn’t much better as the Bears lost 3-1 to the Magicians. The weekend sweep dropped the Bears to 17-7-1-2. That combined with the three-game weekend sweep that the Fairbanks Ice Dogs (17-8-0-2) enjoyed over the Janesville Jets resulted in Kenai River’s lead whittled down to just one point in the NAHL Midwest division.
The Bears’ first loss in 34 days had a familiar look Friday night as the Bears quickly staked out a 2-0 lead, but the momentum soon shifted the other way.
“Even in the past we’ve come out pretty fast and took our foot off the gas,” said head coach Kevin Murdock. “We’re usually able to regain that, but tonight … we came out quick and kind of waited around for the last five minutes of the game to get going again.”
A 2-all deadlock that lasted for nearly 30 minutes of game time was finally broken with 10:29 to play in the third. A pair of minor penalties against the Bears put the Magicians on a brief 5-on-3 power play, and Minnesota made it count with a one-time laser shot by Jonathan Ziskie that gave the Magicians their first lead of the night.
From there, both teams traded blows as Sasha Shogren scored to give Minnesota a 4-2 lead with just under eight minutes to go, then Porter Schachle responded with 5:50 to go. The Magicians scored again on a rush down the ice from Lucas Kanta with 2:07 left for a 5-3 lead, but the Bears answered again to keep hope alive on a Theo Thrun goal with 1:22 left.
Minnesota finally put it away with 58 ticks left on an empty-netter by Joey Foss.
In securing only their fifth win of the season through 23 games, the Magicians came in hungry to prove that they could knock off the top contender. Minnesota head coach AJ Bucchino said
“It’s fun to come in, play a first-place team and beat them,” Bucchino said. “I think being on the road with how our season started, and the success that Kenai’s been having, the boys really rose to the occasion, and we weren’t intimidated at all.”
The Magicians closed the season series between them and the Bears to 3-2 with three contests left this season. Minnesota began the year with one win in its first eight games and is the only team in the league without a win streak of any length, but Bucchino said the attitude has made a difference.
“We’ve been finding ways to lose through our first seven games (of the season series), so I’m very proud of our guys for digging deep and finding ways to win,” Bucchino said.
Laudon Poellinger got the night started early, scoring 1:58 into the game to give the Bears a lead. The goal also resulted in a cascade of teddy bears and other assorted toy animals thrown onto the ice from the crowd. The spectacle was an intentional charity toss to help the Salvation Army.
Once the carpet of teddy bears was cleaned up, play resumed and Kenai River immediately returned to pressuring Minnesota with a zone presence. Cody Moline made it 2-0 before six minutes were up by collecting a rebound from a Porter Schachle shot that bounced off the pads of Minnesota goalie Samuel Vyletelka.
Vyletelka finished the night with 49 saves on 53 shots, while Kenai River goaltender Landon Pavlisin stopped 48 of 53 to receive his first loss in over a month.
The Magicians came back to tie it up before the end of the first, starting with a goal by Josh Bohlin that came on a deflection. The tying shot with 20 seconds left in the period was lifted off the stick of Nick Lanigan and over Pavlisin’s shoulder. It was Lanigan’s first score of the season.
After no scoring in the second period, the two teams then combined for six goals in the final 10 1/2 minutes.
Murdock said games earlier this year featured similar challenges with the Bears rallying back from two- and three-goal holes, but stressed that that approach isn’t the way to go.
“The message for the guys was, you can’t wait around for the last five minutes to get going,” he said.
As for the win streak, Murdock said the pressure to keep it up was never much of a concern with the team.
“The thing with win streaks is they’re going to come to an end eventually,” he said. “For our guys, this is an opportunity to see if they can bounce back.”
Magicians 6, Brown Bears 4
Minnesota 2 0 4 —6
Kenai River 2 0 2 —4
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Poellinger (Lajoie, Quinn), 1:58; 2. Kenai River, Moline (Schachle, Morgan), 5:42; 3. Minnesota, Bohlin (Foss, Shogren), 7:50; 4. Minnesota, Lanigan (Doyle), 19:40. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Minnesota 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — no scoring. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Minnesota 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — 5. Minnesota, Ziskie (Kryska, Reifenberger), PP, 9:31; 6. Minnesota, Shogren (Bohlin, Gellerman), 12:02; 7. Kenai River, Schachle (Helgeson, Moline), 14:10; 8. Minnesota, Kanta (Seitz), 17:53; 9. Kenai River, Thrun (Ritchie), 18:38; 10. Minnesota, Foss (Reifenberger, Lanigan), EN, 19:02. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 15-14-24—53; Minnesota 18-16-20—54.
Goalies — Kenai River, Pavlisin (53 shots, 48 saves); Minnesota, Vyletelka (53 shots, 49 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 1; Minnesota 1 for 4.
Magicians 3, Brown Bears 1
Minnesota 1 1 1 —3
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
1st period — 1. Minnesota, Hale (Konin, Eckerline), 10:07. Penalties — Minnesota 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 2. Minnesota, Konin (Kukkonen, Kanta), 18:06. Penalties — Minnesota 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 3. Minnesota, Christy (Kryska), PP, 2:10; 4. Kenai River, Ritchie (Krajnik, Spinner), 16:53. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 15-13-11—39; Minnesota 12-9-8—29.
Goalies — Kenai River, Fraga (29 shots, 26 saves); Minnesota, Mankowski (39 shots, 38 saves).