The Kenai River Brown Bears clinched their first playoff berth since 2014 with a 7-4 victory over the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League play, then kept rolling with a 3-2 overtime victory over the Jets on Saturday.
The Bears will make their seventh playoff appearance in their 14th season in the league. Kenai River is still searching for the first playoff series win in franchise history.
Last season, Kenai River was well on its way to clinching a playoff berth but didn’t get the chance when the coronavirus pandemic shut the season down.
“I think it’s great, but there’s a little bit of an asterisk because last year we probably were going to make the playoffs as well,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said. “It’s been a long time coming. The organization kept getting better and better the last few years. It was only a matter of time.”
The Bears are now 21-21-1-1, good for 44 points and fourth place in the Midwest Division. The Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel have 27 points and six games left. With a win counting for two points, there is no way the Steel can catch up. Janesville leads the division at 28-10-4-0.
Kenai River still has a chance to move up to the third playoff slot in the Midwest. The Bears are four points behind the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and close the season with Friday and Saturday games in Fairbanks, then May 14 and 15 games vs. the Ice Dogs at the sports complex.
While last weekend’s three-game sweep of Chippewa in effect locked up the playoff spot for the Bears, Murdock said the Bears can now breathe a sigh of relief.
“It’s been such an up and down season,” he said. “We’ve been all over the standings.”
The Bears, who were based in Breezy Point, Minnesota, for most of the season, also packed a bunch of games into January and February in order to try and get back to Alaska as soon as possible. After playing more games than many division opponents, Murdock said there was always a worry Chippewa would get hot and pass the idle Bears in the standings.
“With all those games in hand, there was always the worry we’d be on the outside looking in,” Murdock said.
The coach also had hopes throughout the season that returning to Alaska would give the team momentum for the playoffs. So far, so good, with the Bears at 5-1 since returning home.
After losing 5-2 to the Jets on Thursday, the reverse happened Friday with Kenai River taking a 4-0 lead after the first period. Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie scored twice in the period, while Lucas Wahlin and Shayne Tomlinson also had goals.
“When he gets off his shot and hits the net, he’s got a good chance of scoring goals because his shot is so good,” Murdock said of Lajoie.
Kenai River and Janesville have played some high-scoring games this year with lots of good scoring chances.
“We capitalized on our chances early tonight just like they did last night,” Murdock said.
Luke Pavicich made 33 saves for the Bears, while Riley Sims stopped 33 for the Jets.
Pavicich is committed to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which recently won the NCAA Division I hockey title.
“He’s had to play a lot of games recently for us with our goalie situation,” Murdock said. “For a goalie, that can be mentally draining as much as it’s physically draining.
“Maybe he wasn’t the happiest with his performance (Thursday) night, but he was able to refocus mentally. That shows the type of goalie he really is.”
The Bears had only one defenseman — Anchorage’s Ryan Reid — in his last year of junior eligibility on the ice. Murdock said the younger defensemen have responded well to the ice time.
Janesville cut it to 4-2 in the second on goals by Charlie Schoen and Shane Ott, but Brandon McNamara made it 5-2 for Kenai River headed to the third.
Wahlin started that period with his 12th goal in 12 games.
“The biggest thing is Wahlin just works his tail off to create opportunities,” Murdock said. “His linemates also do a good job of creating opportunities.”
Jake Veri made it 7-2 before Dominik Bartecko had a pair of power-play goals for Janesville.
Saturday, Janesville’s Tommy Middleton started the scoring just 1:06 into the game, and Anchorage’s Max Helgeson tied it up just 41 seconds later. Middleton then gave the Jets a 2-1 lead headed to the second period.
Morgan Winters tied it in the second to set up Lucas Wahlin’s game-winner 3:09 into overtime. It was Wahlin’s 13th goal in 13 games. Reid also got his third assist of the night on the strike.
Pavicich stopped 35 for the Bears, while Owen Millward had 48 saves for the Jets.
Brown Bears 7, Jets 4
Janesville 0 2 2 —4
Kenai River 4 1 2 —7
First period — 1. Kenai River, Wahlin (Morgan, Dodge), 2:41; 2. Kenai River, Lajoie (Dubicki, McNamara), 10:11; 3. Kenai River, Lajoie (Dubicki, McNamara), 13:10; 4. Kenai River, Tomlinson (M. Helgeson, Green), 17:59. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 5. Janesville, Schoen (Middleton), pp, 0:56; 6. Janesville, Ott (Romer), 3:42; 7. Kenai River, McNamara (Lajoie, Pfister), pp, 13:15. Penalties — Janesville 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 8. Kenai River, Wahlin (Blanton, Green), 1:41; 9. Kenai River, Veri (Thrun, Winters), 3:49; 10. Janesville, Bartecko (Itagaki, Lapointe), pp, 8:24; 11. Janesville, Bartecko (un.), pp, 10:41.
Shots on goal — Janesville 16-11-10—37; Kenai River 16-15-9—40.
Goalies — Janesville, Sims (40 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (37 shots, 33 saves).
Brown Bears 3, Jets 2, OT
Janesville 2 0 0 0 —0
Kenai River 1 1 0 1 —3
First period — 1. Janesville, Middleton (Newton, Lucken), 1:06; 2. Kenai River, Helgeson (Reid, Tomlinson), 1:47; 3. Janesville, Middleton (Newton), 8:11. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Winters (Morgan, Reid), 7:54. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Janesville 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 5. Kenai River, Wahlin (Poellinger, Reid), 3:09. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Janesville 15-10-11-1—37; Kenai River 10-23-15-3—51.