The 2015 calendar year ended with one more loss for the Kenai River Brown Bears. 2016 could not come soon enough.
The Brown Bears lost a franchise-high 28th game in a row and fell to 1-29-1 on the season Thursday with a 6-3 loss to the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks.
Johnstown rallied from a third-period deficit by scoring four times in the final period to cruise to the win on New Years Eve. Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant said the tide turned when one of the North American Hockey League’s best players showed up in the late stages.
“Our boys competed the entire game, it was in-your-face hockey,” Beauparlant said. “We had the game in control, and their best player made two spectacular plays.”
Casey Linkenheld, a forward who is committed to Division I Bowling Green State University, scored twice to lift the Tomahawks to the win. Linkenheld tied the game on a short-handed attempt — intercepting the puck on a penalty kill and breaking away into open space to score — less than a minute after the Bears took the lead in the third period, then notched the go-ahead score with 9:21 to play.
Justin Bofshever, who tallied two goals, gave Kenai River a 3-2 lead early in the third period, redirecting a pass from Gunnar Goodmanson.
Cameron Cook was also the recipient of a Goodmanson pass when he scored with 2:06 left in the second period to tie it up at 2-all. Goodmanson took a shot on center net, and Cook was there to help out.
“We had a lot of good energy coming off the break,” Beauparlant said.
However, Linkenfeld proved too potent for the Bears defense in the third period. After his pair of strikes gave Johnstown a 4-3 lead, Adam Pilewicz added an insurance goal with 2:56 remaining in the game, then was followed by an empty-netter from Luke Lynch with 1:08 left.
The Tomahawks outshot the Bears 39-22 overall, including 14-5 in the first period. Brendan Jaquay and Andrew Romano both took advantage of the offensive outburst to score and give the home team a 2-0 lead.
The loss came just two days after Kenai River parted ways with its best player. Brown Bears forward Jack Gessert was shipped off to the Chicago Steel of the ultra-competitive United States Hockey League in a trade on December 29. Gessert was the team leader in points in 2015 with 19 (nine goals, 10 assists). Beauparlant said the Bears will be acquiring assets from the Steel, and said the opportunity to send Gessert up the ladder of player development came quickly.
“We were traveling through Pittsburgh, and we got a call from the Chicago general manager,” Beauparlant said. “We’re in the business of moving players up, and Jack is a guy that has been loyal to our program. It was the right opportunity with the right club.”
Gessert leaves the franchise with 98 points scored over his 2 1-2 seasons with Kenai River. With Gessert gone, the Bears named Adam Kresl as the new team captain Thursday morning.
On the other end of the NAHL career spectrum, Kenai native Ross Hanson made his league debut Thursday night.
“He played well tonight,” Beauparlant said. “I’m proud of how he competed, and we’re excited to have him for Saturday.”
Hanson had played two seasons with the Pikes Peak Miners of the North American Prospects Hockey League before tendering with the Brown Bears in Nov. 2014.
With all eyes focused on snapping the lengthy winless drought, Beauparlant said the team is looking forward to 2016 and Saturday’s contest with Johnstown, set for 3 p.m. AST.
“All we’re focused on is being 1-0 on Saturday,” Beauparlant said. “Everything else in the past is in the rearview mirror.”
Tomahawks 6, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
Johnstown 2 0 4 —6
1st period — 1. Johnstown, Jaquay (Cmunt, Burr) 2:41; 2. Johnstown, Romano (Hudson), 6:13. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 3. Kenai River, Bofshever (Hartje), 8:42; 4. Kenai River, Cook (Kresl, Fasegha), pp, 17:54. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Johnstown 3 for 6:00.
3rd period — 5. Kenai River, Bofshever (Goodmanson), 5:47; 6. Johnstown, Linkenheld (unassisted), sh, 6:30; 7. Johnstown, Linkenheld (Lynch, Romano), 10:39; 8. Johnstown, Pilewicz (Cmunt), 17:04; 9. Johnstown, Lynch (unassisted), en, 18:52. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 5:00; Johnstown 3 for 17:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 5-10-7—22; Johnstown 14-11-14—39.
Goalies — Kenai River, Baker (35 shots, 33 saves); Johnstown, Lindgren (22 shots, 19 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Johnstown 0 for 4.