Kenai River Brown Bears forward Ryan Finch (20) celebrates his second-period goal Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Ryan Finch (20) celebrates his second-period goal Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears complete 2-game sweep of Windigo

The Kenai River Brown Bears completed a two-game sweep of the Wisconsin Windigo with a 3-1 victory Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League action.

The Bears cooled off the Windigo to tighten the standings even further in the Midwest Division.

Kenai River (21-18-1-1) and Wisconsin (21-15-1-1) are tied for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the division with 44 points. The Minnesota Wilderness and Fairbanks Ice Dogs are tied for first in the division with 49, while the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets are in third at 45.

Still very much in contention with about one-third of the season left are the Anchorage Wolverines in sixth with 40 points, the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel in seventh with 36 points and the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues in eighth with 34 points.

The Bears travel to Chippewa for Friday and Saturday games at 4 p.m. AKST.

“I don’t know if we can say we’ve seen anything like it, at least for many years, in terms of how tight it is,” Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said of the division. “It’s a good thing, right? It means the league is strong, and certainly our division is strong.”

Since getting swept in late October at the sports complex, the Windigo had gone 17-4-0-1 before sustaining another sports complex sweep Friday and Saturday. Kenai River came into the series on a four-game skid and 1-6-0-1 since the holiday break.

“This is absolutely huge,” Kenai River goalie Nils Wallstrom said of the sweep. “We were looking for this change.

“I think this is a huge opportunity to turn it around and keep winning.”

Wallstrom led the victory by making 37 saves, while Kenai River got opportunistic goals on Wisconsin goalie Gavin Moffatt, who had 19 saves. Moffatt still has the best save percentage in the league at .945.

“I thought he had a really good weekend overall,” Shaw said of Wallstrom, who also picked up the win Friday. “We know he has the ability to do it. We certainly don’t want to lean on him too much, but he made some big-time saves.”

The shots were even at 11 in the first period as Garett Drotts got a three-point night started with the only goal in the first. Bryce Monrean and Jack Anderson had assists.

The Windigo pressed in the second period, leading on shots 18-7, but the Bears came out of the period with a 3-1 lead.

Wisconsin’s Connor Mahony tied the game with 15:05 left in the second. With 12:01 left, Wallstrom made a cat-quick save on a backdoor shot to preserve the tie.

After four-on-four play, the Bears got their man back with 9:57 left in the second period to go on the power play. Thanks to some urgency from Drotts at the point, it took Kenai River just 19 seconds to score.

Ryan Finch got the goal on assists from Drotts and Ben Monson.

With 8:10 left in the second, Wallstrom made a sprawling save on a rebound to preserve the lead.

Then with 53 seconds left in the period, Jacob Zwirecki, assisted by Drotts and Monrean, made it 3-1.

“I thought they put us on our heels pretty good for the second period there,” Shaw said. “I thought we had some momentum, but for the most part, I thought they controlled play. To be able to come out of it 3-1 — that goal was huge.”

Zwirecki got his first goal with the Bears in his sixth game with the team.

“Jacob Zwirecki had a big night tonight,” Shaw said. “He ate a lot of pucks there, and in the latter part of the game. He came up with a timely goal.”

The Windigo made their final big push on a power play with 6:59 left in the game. Wisconsin whipped the puck around the ice and put it on the doorstep in traffic multiple times but Wallstrom stood strong.

Shaw called timeout with 34 seconds left in the power play after the same Brown Bears penalty-killing unit had been out the whole time.

“The guys who were in there really, really did their job and blocked shots for me, and I did my part,” Wallstrom said.

Shaw said coming into the series that not converting on chances and losing the special teams battle were holding the Bears back. Kenai River again won at special teams Saturday, going 1 for 2 on the power play and holding Wisconsin to 0 for 4.

“I think everybody got on the same page this weekend,” Wallstrom said. “I think it was obviously a good thing to get home and play in Kenai here, and get all the fans going.”

Shaw said the players getting into a school Thursday was a good way to set up the series. This was Kenai River’s first home series since Dec. 3.

“That matters, right?” Shaw said. “To be in the community and helping out. This is their team. We’re just fortunate enough to be a part of it.”

Saturday

Brown Bears 3, Windigo 1

Wisconsin 0 1 0 —1

Kenai River 1 2 0 —3

First period — 1. Kenai River, Drotts (Monrean, J. Anderson), 10:18. Penalties — Wisconsin 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.

Second period — 2. Wisconsin, Mahony (Bell, DiMaggio), 4:55; 3. Kenai River, Finch (Drotts, Monson), pp, 10:22; 4. Kenai River, Zwirecki (Drotts, Monrean), 19:07. Penalties — Wisconsin 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.

Third period — none. Penalties — Wisconsin 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.

Shots on goal — Wisconsin 11-18-9—38; Kenai River 11-7-4—22.

Goalies — Wisconsin, Moffatt (22 shots, 19 saves); Kenai River, Wallstrom (38 shots, 37 saves).

Power plays — Wisconsin 0 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 2.

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Owen Hanson watches as Ryan Finch’s shot gets past Wisconsin Windigo goalie Gavin Moffatt on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Owen Hanson watches as Ryan Finch’s shot gets past Wisconsin Windigo goalie Gavin Moffatt on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River defenseman Luke Anderson blocks a shot by Wisconsin Windigo forward Luke Levandowski on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River defenseman Luke Anderson blocks a shot by Wisconsin Windigo forward Luke Levandowski on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Joe Manning challenges Wisconsin Windigo forward Benjamin Anderson for the puck Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Joe Manning challenges Wisconsin Windigo forward Benjamin Anderson for the puck Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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