The Kenai River Brown Bears and New Jersey Titans split a weekend North American Hockey League series in Middletown, New Jersey, Friday and Saturday.
The Bears won 3-2 in a shootout Friday before losing 3-1 Saturday.
Kenai River enters the holiday break with a 7-19-2-0 record, good for last in the Midwest Division. New Jersey is 21-9-1-1, good for second in the East Division.
But the Bears also enter the break with signs pointing to a young team turning the corner, having won six of nine games.
Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton was looking forward to the series with the Titans as a test of how far his team has come in the first half of the season. New Jersey swept the Bears 3-0 and 4-1 in the fifth and sixth games of Kenai River’s season.
While happy with Friday’s win, Worlton said Saturday showed his team still has room to grow.
“Obviously, we wanted to win both,” he said. “I’d give maybe a C, a C-plus. We missed five or six open nets, hit five posts and didn’t score on the power play.
“We’re getting better. But we’ve still got to put it together for two nights in a row against one of the top teams in the league.”
The Bears showed off the improvement Friday with two goals in the first period.
“We got two quick goals, we played sound defensively, and it was our team defense and good goaltending that won it,” said Kenai River coach Jeff Worlton. “It was a total team effort for blocking shots, making the right plays and keeping it simple.”
However, Worlton downplayed the significance of the win, saying the team is still keeping a single-track mind-set.
“It’s just a win,” he said. “I wouldn’t rather win against the Generals or the Titans, we’re just happy to get every one of them, they all count for two points.”
Goaltender Robbie Goor put on another exceptional performance in goal for the Bears, stopping 35 of 37 shots in regulation and overtime, then warding off all three shootout attempts by New Jersey.
In the shootout, Anthony Tzveyn and Brycon Johnson were unable to score on New Jersey goalie Brandon Bussi, but Luke Radetic made the ultimate game-winner on Kenai River’s third attempt.
Goor stymied Jordan Kaplan and Nick Boyagian before getting the chance to make the game-ending save on Maxim Andreev.
Worlton praised the Titans’ offensive fortitude, saying they played like a team sitting among the league’s leaders.
“They’re a talented team, a good team with a lot of offensive talent,” Worlton said. “I’m sure they’re going to respond (Saturday).”
Tzveyn and Tyler Rock both scored within 2:30 of each other in the first period to put Kenai River ahead 2-0 early. The Titans gained one back with a shot from Greg Malafronte in the first period, but the Bears made the lead stand up for most of the rest of the way.
However, once New Jersey pulled its goalie and put out its extra attacker in the waning minutes, the pressure became too much for the Bears and Boyagian slotted in a game-tying goal with 43 seconds left in regulation.
The eight-minute overtime period did nothing to solve the 2-all tie, unleashing the shootout.
Worlton gave credit to the defensive prowess of his team, praising defenders Chris Lipe and Alex Dingeldien, as well as forward Ethan Stewart for blocking several scoring chances.
“Our D core was limiting (New Jersey) to one shot,” he said. “They weren’t getting a lot of rebound shots.”
Worlton also was happy that Kenai River stayed composed on the ice by committing only two penalties the entire game.
Saturday, it was the Titans jumping out to a 2-0 lead with goals in the first and second periods.
The Brown Bears didn’t solve New Jersey goalie Harrison Freeney until Rock scored with an extra attacker at 1:47 to play. But New Jersey would ice the game with an empty-netter.
Kenai River won the shot count 28-26, with Goor making 23 saves.
The Titans are second in the league in scoring, so Worlton said holding them to, in effect, four goals in two games was a good sign.
But again, he’s not totally satisfied.
“Ultimately, this is about winning and losing,” he said. “We played well, we just didn’t capitalize.
“We can see things are going the right way and that’s a positive, but you also want to win all the time.”
The Bears are off until Dec. 30, when they play at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) at 3:30 p.m. AST.
Brown Bears 3, Titans 2
Kenai River 2 0 0 0 1 —3
New Jersey 1 0 1 0 0 —2
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Tzveyn (Holmes, Stewart), 4:21; 2. Kenai River, Rock (Butcher, Carroll), 6:51; 3. New Jersey, Malafronte (Riedell, Andreev), 12:46. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — no scoring. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; New Jersey 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 4. New Jersey, Boyagian (unassisted), EN, 19:17. Penalties — New Jersey 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — no scoring.
Shootout — Kenai River 1 (Tzveyn NG, Johnson NG, Radetic G); New Jersey 0 (Kaplan NG, Boyagian NG, Andreev NG).
Shots on goal — Kenai River 9-7-10-3—30; New Jersey 12-10-13-2—37.
Goalies — Kenai River, Goor (37 shots, 35 saves); New Jersey, Bussi (29 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 0; New Jersey 0 for 0.
Titans 3, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
New Jersey 1 1 1 —2
First period — 1. New Jersey, Andreev (Cusanelli, Stanley), 10:29. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; New Jersey 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. New Jersey, Husted (Kaplan, Eruzione), 12:52. Penalties — New Jersey 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Rock (Mezera, Monahan), 18:13; 4. New Jersey, Wheeler (Kaplan), en, 19:12. Penalties — Kenai River 6 for 42:00; 6 for 24:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 6-13-9—28; New Jersey 10-11-5—26.
Goalies — Kenai River, Goor (26 shots, 24 saves); New Jersey, Feeney (28 shots, 27 saves).