The Kenai River Brown Bears turned another mile on the road to improvement Friday night with a 3-2 shootout victory over the New Jersey Titans.
After weekend sweeps over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Northeast Generals, the Brown Bears have won three in a row and six of their last eight, putting them at 7-18-2-0, still last place in the North American Hockey League’s Midwest Division, but with some momentum.
The sweeps over the Ice Dogs and the Generals could be chalked up to lesser competition; Fairbanks was in the midst of an 11-game losing skid, and Northeast hadn’t won a single game all season, but the Titans presented a much more formidable challenge.
New Jersey sports the fourth-best record in the NAHL at 20-9-1-1, good for 42 points. The Aston (Pennsylvania) Rebels lead the league with 47 points, but the Brown Bears made quick work of the Titans 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 mindset.
“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 limiting themselves with only two penalties the entire game.
Kenai River and New Jersey will drop the puck again Saturday 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.