With Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues head coach Tyler Rennette missing on the bench with an illness, it was up to assistant coach Josh Dallmann to figure out how to keep the Jr. Blues from losing any ground to his old team — the Kenai River Brown Bears — in a tight playoff race.
The Jr. Blues got it done with a 4-2 North American Hockey League win over the Brown Bears Thursday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The Jr. Blues broke a 2-all tie in the third period with a pair of goals just 54 seconds apart.
The loss dropped the Brown Bears further behind the Blues in the race for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NAHL Midwest Division. Kenai River (12-19-2-2) entered the night trailing the Blues (15-15-2-1) by five points, but now sit seven behind with two games left this weekend. The Bears and Blues drop the puck tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich admitted postgame that the Bears lost a valuable opportunity to close the gap in the playoff race.
“We were tied 2-2 in our own building going into the third, and we lose the period 2-0,” Petrich said. “It’s not good. We have two more chances this weekend, and down seven points, we can get it to three.
“It’s going to have to be all in.”
Dallmann, an assistant two years ago in Jeff Worlton’s tenure with Kenai River, picked up the win against his former employer with Rennette out due to a recent sickness. Dallmann said performing under pressure on the road in a tied game gave him a lot of satisfaction.
“They came out hot on their home ice, but we got better as the game went on,” Dallmann said. “In the end it was about our guys believing in each other.”
The night began with a bang as the Bears scored just 55 seconds in on a chip shot by Zach Krajnik that came to him out of the right corner. Kenai River entered the night with the third-lowest offensive production in the league.
The Jr. Blues got it back with 2:06 left in the first on a goal knocked in by Max Brainin, who got his stick on the puck amidst a scrum in the crease.
The Jr. Blues outshot the Bears 16-7 in the second period, but both teams came out of the frame still tied. Nikita Kozyrev put Springfield ahead 2-1 on an upper-shelf shot from afar, but J.J. Boucher knotted it just 2 1/2 minutes later when he poked in the puck from the near side.
Nick Techel netted the ultimate game-winning goal with 8:33 left to play, capitalizing on a frenetic scramble in front of Bears goalie Dennis Westergard to put the Jr. Blues up 3-2.
Brandon Puricelli added another just 54 seconds later on a wrist shot from distance.
The Bears had a golden opportunity to close the gap with 5:03 left in the game when two quick Springfield penalties left the home team on a 5-on-3 power play for 76 seconds, but a series of stinging slapshots were warded off by Blues goalie Jack Williams.
Westergard finished with 30 saves for the Bears, while Williams picked up the win for Springfield with 25 saves.
“We had a grade-A chance there that just doesn’t sneak through,” Petrich said about the late power play.
Dallmann said the Springfield penalty kill unit was stellar in knocking away pucks.
“It was a little stressful but they did their job,” he said. “If we don’t have a PK where guys are blocking shots, it’s a long night.”
Petrich said he hopes to see the Bears return Friday with motivation to make up for it.
“Let it hurt,” Petrich said the postgame message was. “We dug ourselves a hole, and now we’ve got to show what we’re made of.”
Jr. Blues 4, Brown Bears 2
Springfield 1 1 2 —4
Kenai River 1 1 0 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Krajnik (Poellinger, McDonald), :55; 2. Springfield, Brainin (Techel, Sterne), 17:54. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Springfield, Kozyrev (Reid), 8:22; 4. Kenai River, Boucher (Krajnik, Spethmann), 10:59. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Springfield, Techel (Kozyrev, Finley), 11:27; 6. Springfield, Puricelli (Swanson, Carabelli), 12:21. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 4:00; Springfield 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 11-7-9—27; Springfield 11-16-7—34.
Goalies — Kenai River, Westergard (34 shots, 30 saves); Springfield, Williams (27 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Springfield 0 for 1.