The Kenai River Brown Bears received three pivotal goals from the line of Zach Krajnik, Theo Thrun and Logan Ritchie in defeating the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets 5-2 on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The win in the Bears’ home opener pushed their record to 5-2-1-1 and moved them to second place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. Janesville falls to 3-6-0-0 and is tied for last in the division.
Not every home atmosphere in the NAHL is like the one at Kenai River.
The Bears started their season at the NAHL Showcase, which is for scouts and not fans, and then played at the Minnesota Magicians and Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel.
“It wasn’t like this,” said Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock, who coached his first game at the sports complex. “It wasn’t an arena that could fit this many people, and there were not this many people there.”
While the Bears have plenty of veterans from last season, the team also has plenty of players fresh from 18U hockey where the crowd consists of family and friends.
“There was a lot of nerves this week about the home opener,” Murdock said. “Our main message was just to have fun. At the end of the day, this is still a game.”
Thrun, 18, did just that, playing a role in all three goals that helped the Bears open up an insurmountable lead. He finished with a goal and two assists.
Last year, he played for Fox Motors 18U in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before going to Kenai River in the second round of the NAHL Draft.
“This is awesome,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever played in front of a lot of people. It was super special.”
In the first period, Anchorage’s Max Helgeson put the Bears up 1-0 when he tipped in a shot by Bryan Huggins.
But the Jets started building up offensive zone possession near the end of the period and eventually got a power-play goal from Jan Lasak with just five seconds left in the period.
Getting scored on so late in a period can be a momentum killer, but Thrun said it did just the opposite, particularly after getting swept last weekend by the Steel.
“It made us go harder,” he said. “We were still mad about last weekend.”
Just 25 seconds into the second period, Ritchie got the puck to the slot and Thrun pounced on it, ripping it top shelf.
“I like to get as many pucks to the net as I can,” Thrun said.
Janesville responded by again building offensive-zone possession and getting rewarded with a Jake Dunlap tally with 13:55 left in the second that tied it at 2.
Jets head coach Corey Leivermann said his team’s play leading up to the goals was great, but added that executing the system in 10 of the game’s 60 minutes will not get it done in the NAHL.
“We didn’t have good enough forecheck,” he said. “The guys didn’t buy into the system tonight.”
With 11:52 left in the third period, the Bears top line struck again. Eagle River’s Krajnik played a pass ahead to Thrun, correctly betting the speedster could beat the icing call. Thrun collected the puck behind the net and fed it back to Krajnik for a goal.
Then with 7:38 left in the game, Thrun forced a turnover in Janesville’s zone. The puck bounced to Ritchie, who found Krajnik on the back post for a two-goal cushion.
“I think they played with a lot of speed and creativity,” Murdock said of the Krajnik-Thrun-Ritchie line. “They were able to shoot the puck, make plays and be relatively responsible defensively.”
Trey LaBarge would add an empty-netter to account for the final score.
Leivermann said the third period has been a problem for his team.
“We’re young, but we’re also nine games into the season and should be figuring it out by now,” he said.
Grant Riley had 33 saves for the Jets, while Landon Pavlisin stopped 36 saves for Kenai River.
The same two teams play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.
Brown Bears 5, Jets 2
Janesville 1 1 0 — 2
Kenai River 1 2 2 — 5
First period — 1. Kenai River, Helgeson (Huggins, LaBarge), 6:37; 2. Janesville, Lasak (Skymming), pp, 19:55. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Thrun (Ritchie), 0:25; 4. Janesville, Dunlap (Bacallo), 6:05; 5. Kenai River, Krajnik (Thrun), 8:08. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Krajnik (Ritchie, Thrun), 12:32; 7. Kenai River, LaBarge (McCollum), en, 17:39. Penalties — Janesville 6 for 20:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Janesville 17-8-13—38; Kenai River 12-12-7—31.
Goalies — Janesville, Riley (37 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Pavlisin (38 shots, 36 saves).