The Kenai River Brown Bears finally rid themselves of the proverbial monkey on their backs.
The Brown Bears snapped a franchise-high string of 30 games without a win Saturday with a 4-2 victory over the host Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights in North American Hockey League play in front of 302.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “The boys really earned it tonight.
“The boys put in the time and it should have been a lot earlier but the pucks didn’t go our way. They went our way tonight and they battled for all 60 minutes.”
The Bears’ last victory had come on Sept. 18 — in just the third game of the season — when Kenai River topped the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets 4-3 in overtime.
Kenai River also ended a string of five straight games without a point, which led the league coming into the game. That string included a 7-4 loss to the Knights on Friday in front of 417.
“It all comes down to the process,” Beauparlant said. “Like I told them tonight, they’ve believed the whole time. They could have asked for a trade or said they wanted out, but they’ve seen that working long-term pays off.
“(United States Hockey League) teams have been calling about some of the young guys and there were two to three college teams, Division I or III, talking after the games. They know their efforts are being noticed.”
The Bears are now 2-31-1, while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton falls to 12-16-4. Beauparlant said the team has not gone overboard celebrating the win, knowing the Bears are still 35 points out of a playoff spot.
“Since we’ve come back (from Christmas break), we’ve talked about just being 1-0, just taking it one game at a time,” Beauparlant said.
Kenai River got off to a solid start Saturday, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period. Sam Carlson, assisted by Jordan Hank and Dylan McArthur, and Hank, assisted by Joey Sardina, had the goals.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton cut the gap to 2-1 midway through the second period, but Bayley Marshall, assisted by Seyia Hayata, again gave the Bears a two-goal cushion with 2:12 left in the second.
It’s was Marshall’s first NAHL goal and first goal for the Brown Bears. His line was thrown together, with Hayata moving from defense to forward and Collin Appleton also joining the group.
Sardina, assisted by Evan Butcher and Charles Spetz, pushed the lead to 4-1 with 10:45 left in the game.
“We’ve always talked about it being a race to four, and we won that race tonight,” Beauparlant said.
Tanner Bennett scored just 30 seconds later to cut the gap to 4-2, but Kenai River goalie Nick Nast was able to keep a clean sheet for the rest of the game.
Beauparlant said the team did a great job of refocusing after giving up the second goal, and added that Nast played superbly in getting his first NAHL victory.
The coach said the other player that stood out was Carlson. He said the two colleges in attendance called Carlson the best player on the ice.
Nast finished with 51 saves for the Bears, while Grant Valentine stopped 35 for the Knights.
Friday, Blake Busch scored just 36 seconds into the game for the Knights, but Jake Hartje answered, on assists from Carlson and Justin Bofshever, with 5:20 gone in the first.
However, Paul Maust and Jacob Hamacher scored within 33 seconds of each other for a 3-1 lead. Bears goalie Brian Baker was pulled after giving up his third goal.
Bofshever, on assists from Jeff Fasegha and Carlson, made it 3-2 with just 29 seconds left in the first.
In the second, Paul DeNaples made it 4-2, but Hank, on assists from Miro Lehtimaki and Cam Cook, cut the gap to 4-3 headed into the third.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton scored the first two goals of the third period to take control as Carson Knop and Braden Brown lit the lamp.
With 7:47 to play, Sardina, with help from Lehtimaki and Butcher, cut it to 6-4, but Austin Redders closed the scoring for the Knights.
Baker made 18 saves on 21 shots, while Nick Nast saved 28 of 32 in relief. Andrey Svistunov had 31 saves for the Knights.
The Bears return home to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex for Friday and Saturday games against the Minnesota Wilderness at 7:30 p.m.
Knights 7, Brown Bears 4
Kenai River 2 1 1 —4
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 3 1 3 —7
First period — 1. WBS, Busch (Brown, Zaitsev), 0:36; 2. Kenai River, Hartje (Carlson, Bofshever), 5:20; 3. WBS, Maust (Remers, Zaitsev), 15:32; 4. WBS, Hamacher (Zaitsev, Dawson), 16:05; 5. Kenai River, Bofshever (Fasegha, Carlson), 19:31. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; WBS 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 6. WBS, DeNaples (Busch, Redders), 7:49; 7. Kenai River, Hank (Lehtimaki, Cook), 18:07. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; WBS 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 8. WBS, Knop (DeNaples, Remers), 6:41; 9. WBS, Brown (Busch, Knop), 8:34; 10. Kenai River, Sardina (Lehtimaki, Butcher), 12:13; 11. WBS, Redders (Beck, Dietrich), pp, 16:04. Penalties — 4 for 19:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 14-14-7—35; WBS 21-11-21—53.
Goalies — Kenai River, Baker (21 shots, 18 saves), Nast (32 shots, 28 saves); WBS, Svistunov (35 shots, 31 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3, WBS 2 for 6.
Brown Bears 4, Knights 2
Kenai River 2 1 1 —4
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 0 1 1 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Carlson (Hank, McArthur), 9:58; 2. Kenai River, Hank (Sardina), 17:36. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 17:00; WBS 2 for 15:00.
Second period — 3. WBS, Remers (un.), 11:04; 4. Kenai River, Marshall (Hayata), 17:48. Penalties — Kenai River 5 for 29:00; WBS 2 for 15:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Sardina (Butcher, Spetz), 9:15; 6. WBS, Bennett (Kelly, Beranek), 9:45. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; WBS 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 11-17-11—39; WBS 14-20-19—53.
Goalies — Kenai River, Nast (53 shots, 51 saves); WBS, Valentine (39 shots, 35 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 2; WBS 0 for 4.