A team defined by their potent offense, the Kenai River Brown Bears showed they can win on both sides of the rink, securing their first shutout of the season Friday with a 5-0 win over the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues, then returned to win the rubber match Saturday 7-3 at the Nelson Center.
The two North American Hockey League wins supplanted Thursday’s bad memory of a 4-3 gut-punch loss with a much better one. Brown Bears head coach Kevin Murdock said “stupid penalties” cost the Bears on Thursday, but by Saturday night, the team was the closest to playing a full game as they’ve had all year.
“I thought (Saturday’s) game was our best of the weekend,” Murdock said. “I thought we played pretty well start to finish, there’s still some stuff to clean up but that was one of the better games when it comes to the full 60 minutes.”
Kenai River (21-8-1-2) stayed atop the NAHL Midwest Division standings by one point over Fairbanks (21-9-0-2), who also took two of three this weekend over Janesville, Wisconsin. The Bears have 17 points over the third-place Chippewa Steel, although the Steel have eight less games in hand this season.
Kenai River’s 21st win of the season comes in its 32nd game, just over halfway, and is already more than four of the past five years for the Bears, who finished with 23 wins last season.
Murdock is happy the Bears are staying ahead of the competition for now, but continued to press his warning that the team cannot afford a lapse over the next 28 games if they wish to return to the playoffs.
“It feels good,” he said. “We’re in a pretty good spot, but … and I say this probably too much … but we still haven’t played our best hockey yet. We’re still searching for a full 60-minute game. The guys are getting better, but we still haven’t played our best.”
The Bears trailed 2-1 midway through the second period Saturday, but Kenai River exploded for six goals in a span of 13:14 to grab a 7-2 lead halfway through the third, essentially putting the game away.
Murdock complimented Springfield goalie Ryan Wilson’s effort in the net, even after the Bears were able to unload on him in the third period.
“We had a handful of breakaways early and he had some nice saves,” he said. “We just had that stretch in the third where we were able to find the back of the net.”
Soldotna’s Preston Weeks started Saturday’s game with a first-period power play strike to give Kenai River an early 1-0 lead, but Springfield responded. Carson Jones tied it for Springfield in the second period, and Deniel Holmqvist put the Jr. Blues up 2-1 just 26 seconds later.
However, the Bears were just getting warmed up. Jack Quinn tied the game with 5:19 left in the second with help from Theo Thrun and Zach Krajnik, who tallied his 27th assist of the season, second-best in the league.
With a dwindling clock in the second period, Logan Ritchie found a way past Wilson to give Kenai River a 3-2 lead with just 33 seconds remaining in the frame.
In the third, the Bears put it away with goals from Daymin Dodge, Skylar Gutierrez, Peter Morgan and Brandon Lajoie.
Both Friday and Saturday were defined by Kenai River goalie Landon Pavlisin, who on Friday earned his first full blank sheet of the season and second in regulation with a 48-save shutout, then followed it up with a 38-for-41 effort Saturday to finish with 86 total saves over the two days.
Murdock praised Pavlisin’s effort and said on Friday that the early pressure the Jr. Blues put on him helped build his confidence, and giving him goal support is big.
“He was really good, he made a lot of good saves,” Murdock said. “They threw a lot of stuff at the net which probably helped him. For him to make some of those saves early on and get comfortable, it worked out.”
In Friday’s contest, Springfield led the shots tally 35-17 through two periods before the Bears finished strong with an 18-13 advantage in the third. The Bears clung to a 1-0 lead through much of the contest thanks to a first-period goal from Porter Schachle, his 12th of the season and tied for second on the team. Schachle scored with 5:43 left in the first on an assist from Daymin Dodge, who got his first point with the Bears after joining the team this week.
After weathering a scoreless middle period in which the Jr. Blues continually put pressure on the Bears, the scoring binge began early in the third with a goal from Skylar Gutierrez, who netted his first as a Brown Bear and first since Oct. 25 while playing for the Lone Star Brahmas.
Gutierrez came to the Bears in a trade two weeks ago, and Murdock said the winger’s personal scoreless streak had been rubbing him the wrong way.
“He said before the game, ‘I’m in such a rut,’” Murdock said.
The Gutierrez goal with assists from Brandon Lajoie and Bryan Huggins put the Bears up 2-0 with still 18:09 to play in the third period, but Kenai River quickly put any comeback hopes to bed.
Peter Morgan scored twice in the frame and Zach Krajnik tallied his 11th of the year to extend the lead. All four goals in the period came within 8:40 of each other.
“The guys just came out in the third ready to go, there isn’t anything we did or said, the guys just collectively showed up,” Murdock said about the late run of offense. “It’s nice getting that goal early in the third to give ourselves a lead and they had the momentum.”
Brown Bears 7, Jr. Blues 3
Kenai River 1 2 4 —7
Springfield 0 2 1 —3
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Weeks (unassisted), PP, 9:15. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 3 for 24:00.
2nd period — 2. Springfield, Jones (Jensen, Swanson), 11:48; 3. Springfield, Holmqvist (Brueck), 12:14; 4. Kenai River, Quinn (Thrun, Krajnik), 14:41; 5. Kenai River, Ritchie (Thrun, Green), 19:27. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 6. Kenai River, Dodge (Quinn, Huggins), 4:23; 7. Kenai River, Gutierrez (Helgeson, Lajoie), 5:25; 8. Kenai River, Morgan (Schachle, Valiquette), 6:14; 9. Kenai River, Lajoie (Helgeson, Gutierrez), 7:55; 10. Springfield, Osborne (unassisted), PP, 19:02. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-13-10—30; Springfield 11-16-14—41.
Goalies — Kenai River, Pavlisin (41 shots, 38 saves); Springfield, Wilson (30 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 4; Springfield 1 for 3.
Brown Bears 5, Jr. Blues 0
Kenai River 1 0 4 —5
Springfield 0 0 0 —0
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Schachle (Quinn, Dodge), 14:17. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — no scoring. Penalties — none.
3rd period — 2. Kenai River, Gutierrez (Lajoie, Huggins), 1:51; 3. Kenai River, Morgan (Reid, Valiquette), 2:22; 4. Kenai River, Krajnik (Thrun, Reid), PP, 7:04; 5. Kenai River, Morgan (Gutierrez, Weeks), PP, 10:31. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Springfield 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-10-18—35; Springfield 17-18-13—48.
Goalies — Kenai River, Pavlisin (48 shots, 48 saves); Springfield, Proctor (35 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 2 for 4; Springfield 0 for 2.