As the leading team atop the North American Hockey League Midwest Division and the club with the current longest win streak, the Kenai River Brown Bears have a lot to smile about, but Bears head coach Kevin Murdock isn’t content to sit back on the team’s laurels just yet.
The Bears ran their win streak to eight games Thursday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex with a 5-3 win over the division rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs, pushing their division lead to four points. The Bears (15-5-1-2) lead the way with 33 points, four up on the Ice Dogs (14-7-0-1), and tied for second-best in the league.
While happy to walk away with the victory over their in-state rivals, Murdock said the Bears still had lapses in focus after getting off to a fast start.
“We were fortunate to do that,” Murdock said. “I think we got off to a quick start and kind of woke them up a little bit, and took our foot off the gas a little.”
The eight-game win streak is the second-longest in the NAHL this year, only behind the 10-game run that New Jersey Titans had earlier this year. The Bismarck Bobcats are currently on a run of 12 wins in 13 games, with streaks of six and seven games sandwiched around an overtime loss.
Wasilla product Porter Schachle scored twice, including the second goal of the game just 5 1/2 minutes in, while goalie Landon Pavlisin warded off 34 of 37 shots. Schachle said Murdock and the coaching staff has been working hard to keep the team level-headed amid a win streak.
“They never give us a day off, they never let us get complacent,” Schachle said. “It helps us to be better, never thinking that we’ve got this. We always play to win until the game’s over.”
Fairbanks won the shots battle 15-8 in the second period as the Bears clung to a precarious 3-2 lead, and the Ice Dogs tallied two goals on the power play, giving Murdock something to work on with the club.
“There were big stretches of the game where we got outplayed,” Murdock said. “We were opportunistic in scoring goals.”
Murdock praised Pavlisin for playing strong in net on a night that included a handful of pipe shots and glove saves.
Fairbanks was the last remaining division opponent that the Bears had yet to play, and Murdock said with a chance to see everybody now, the team has a full notebook to work with and get better.
“We’ve got to tighten up after that,” he said. “Hopefully be better prepared for tomorrow. This gives us an idea of where we have to get to keep going.”
The third-best offense in the league entering Thursday got things started quick with two goals in the first 5 1/2 minutes. The Bears took a 1-0 lead just 75 seconds in as Zach Krajnik brought the puck into the crease and Logan Ritchie deposited the rebound into the netting.
Kenai River went up 2-0 at the 5:26 mark of the first with a goal by Schachle. Schachle collected the puck from Ryan Reid between the circles and drove the net to score.
“We came out and knew that Fairbanks is a good team, disciplined and they never beat themselves,” Schachle said. “Overall, I think we were able to capitalize on our opportunities.”
Oliver Kjaer got one back for Fairbanks with a power-play strike midway through the first.
The Bears defense continued to hold up in the second frame and the hard work paid off late in the going with a short-handed goal from Trey LaBarge, who took off immediately after a Fairbanks line change and deposited a sterling shot high into the net.
The 3-1 lead lasted just 15 seconds, however, as the Ice Dogs quickly made the power play worth their while with a goal from Luke Ciolli-Army, who got his stick in amid a scrum at the goal to kick the puck in.
Theo Thrun, the league’s fourth-best scorer, continued his offensive ways early in the third period with a shot from distance to put Kenai River ahead 4-2.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the night, however, came with 13:25 to play when the Ice Dogs were awarded a penalty shot for a Bears defender covering the puck in the crease. The penalty goal could have cut the gap to one, but Mason Plante’s attempt to swing the puck around Pavlisin went wide, keeping a two-score game.
Schachle tallied his second goal of the night with an empty-netter with 1:53 left.
At the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex
Brown Bears 5, Ice Dogs 3
Fairbanks 1 1 1 —3
Kenai River 2 1 2 —5
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Ritchie (Krajnik, Weeks), 1:15; 2. Kenai River, Schachle (Morgan, Hadfield), 5:29; 3. Fairbanks, Kjaer (Brown, Garby), PP, 8:39. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — 4. Kenai River, LaBarge (Poellinger), SH, 18:01; 5. Fairbanks, Ciolli (Johnston, Erkkila), PP, 18:16. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 6. Kenai River, Thrun (Krajnik, McCollum), PP, 6:14; 7. Kenai River, Schachle (unassisted), EN, 18:07; 8. Fairbanks, Deweese (Braslavski, Butler), 19:52. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 10-8-14—32; Fairbanks 10-15-12—37.
Goalies — Kenai River, Pavlisin (37 shots, 34 saves); Fairbanks, Sholl (31 shots, 27 saves).