Kenai River goalie Bryant Marks makes a kick save against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River goalie Bryant Marks makes a kick save against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears hold off Steel, avoid sweep

The Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Chippewa Steel 3-2 on Saturday in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

With the victory, the Bears improved to 12-6-1-0 and returned to the top of the Midwest Division standings. The Steel, who had taken the first two games of the three-game series, are at 11-7-0-0 and in fourth place in the division.

The Brown Bears continue their homestand Saturday when they host the Minnesota Wilderness at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex.

Despite their first-place status, the Bears were in danger Saturday of getting swept for the second time in three series on home ice.

A big reason the Bears avoided the sweep is Wasilla’s Bryant Marks, a goaltender committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Marks, with 35 saves, was able to win a duel with Adam Gajan, who had 33 saves and was named to the National Hockey League’s “Prospects to Watch” list earlier this week.

“It was huge, actually,” Kenai River forward Garett Drotts, who had two power-play goals, said of the victory. “They pressured at the end. Just unbelievable by Marks.”

In addition to Marks’ work in net, Drotts’ goals served as the difference in the game.

Drotts, a rookie, committed to play Division I hockey for Augustana University on Oct. 20. He had just one assist in four games after the commitment before breaking out Saturday.

Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said he could see that the commitment put more pressure on Drotts.

“We had a good conversation with him today that he just needs to go back to being a kid and playing,” Shaw said. “I think he did that tonight. He was having fun and smiling even before he got that goal.”

Drotts said the conversation made a huge difference.

“They told me to have some fun,” he said. “I was starting to, not panic, but just feel a little bit of pressure. And it was starting to get to me a little bit, so I just calmed down and had my teammates’ back.”

Drotts scored on the power play in the first period on assists from Kotaro Tsutsumi and Hunter Newhouse, and in the second period on assists from Tsutsumi and Caleb Huffman of Anchorage.

“I thought we moved the puck really well,” Drotts said of the power-play unit. “They chased a little bit so we just beat them with passes. Kota in the middle just gave me a couple of gifts.”

Chippewa head coach Casey Mignone said his squad had just 17 healthy bodies for the last four games of the Alaska road trip. That considered, the coach was happy to go 3-2 in Fairbanks and Soldotna.

“We’ll take 3-2 every time up here,” he said. “Overall, it’s a good trip. We had a chance to make it a really good trip, but they’re a good group. They played hard and they made one more play than we did.”

Down 2-0 entering the third, the Steel were not about to give up hopes of a sweep. Zach Sondreal scored on the power play just 1:30 into the third to make it 2-1.

With 11:46 left, Ashton Christman, assisted by Carson Triggs, finished off an effort goal for more breathing room for the Bears

Shaw said he felt like his team had more gas left in the tank, but the Bears hurt themselves by giving up four power plays in the third period.

“When we went in there, I said, ‘You guys have to quit giving the staff gray hair,’” Shaw said of the locker room after the game. “Because that seems to be the trend. But we’ll take it. It’s a learning curve. In order to close the game, to hold on and kill two, it might help us down the road.”

When Chippewa went on the power play with 2:27 left, the Steel pulled Gajan and went for a six-on-four power play, with Matthew Brille cutting it to 3-2 with a minute left.

Chippewa pulled the goalie again with 41 seconds left and was able to sustain pressure in Kenai River’s zone, but Marks and the defense held the fort.

“Marks stood tall,” Mignone said. “He did just enough but we pushed hard and you’ve got to love the fight in our group. It would have been easy for us when it goes to 3-1 to just kind of pack it in.”

Saturday

Brown Bears 3, Steel 2

Chippewa 0 0 2 —2

Kenai River 1 1 1 —3

First period — 1. Kenai River, Drotts (Tsutsumi, Newhouse), pp, 9:35. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 4:00.

Second period — 2. Kenai River, Drotts (Tsutsumi, Huffman), pp, 16:43. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Chippewa 1 for 2:00.

Third period — 3. Chippewa, Sondreal (Nielson), pp, 1:30; 4. Kenai River, Christman (Triggs), 8:14; 5. Chippewa, Brille (Ramsey), 19:00. Penalties — Kenai River 4 for 8:00; Chippewa 1 for 2:00.

Shots on goal — Chippewa 7-15-15—37; Kenai River 16-12-8—36.

Goalies — Chippewa, Gajan (36 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Marks (37 shots, 35 saves).

Power plays — Chippewa 2 for 6; Kenai River 2 for 4.

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Kotaro Tsutsumi protects the puck from Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel forward Peyton Platter on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Kotaro Tsutsumi protects the puck from Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel forward Peyton Platter on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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