Kenai River Brown Bears fans had been waiting three months for a home victory. So they were more than happy to wait through an overtime period and a shootout to finally get a win Friday over the Topeka (Kansas) Pilots.
Fans didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the next win as the Bears came back from a 1-0 deficit in the third period for a 2-1 victory Saturday.
“I’m proud of the guys and the work they’ve been doing,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “I’ve been telling them all along it’s going to take one to get us rolling.
“I’m hoping last night was that one, now we’ve got two and we’re on a run.”
Friday, Kenai River, getting two power-play goals from Trey LaBarge and clutch goaltending from Gavin Enright, defeated the Pilots 3-2 in a shootout in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Brown Bears won at home for the first time since Nov. 2, snapping an 11-game skid in front of the faithful. Kenai River also busted up a six-game losing streak, while stretching Topeka’s losing streak to five.
“It’s great,” LaBarge said. “We could feel this building and this definitely generates some momentum. There’s a buzz in the locker room right now.”
Kenai River moves to 14-22-2-2, but is still 12 points out of a playoff spot in the Midwest Division and the fourth-place Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues remain red hot. Topeka falls to 17-19-2-5 and is just two points out of the playoffs in the South Division.
After having last weekend off, the Bears came out strong Friday and outshot Topeka 12-6 in the first period en route to a 25-18 advantage for the game.
“That was probably one of our best first periods this season,” Petrich said. “At home, it was for sure.”
LaBarge, assisted by Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik and JJ Boucher, had the lone goal of the first on the power play.
Outnumbered, the defense must leave an area open on the power play. The Bears noticed Topeka was leaving the area next to the goal open. LaBarge got the puck down there and spun out in front of the net for a goal.
In the second period, with 11:35 and 10:18 remaining, Quinn Green and Kaiden Scott quickly gave Topeka a 2-1 lead.
“We got away from what we were doing in the second and let them dictate the pace and play,” Petrich said.
The coach said the Bears were able to pull it together to close the second and gain momentum headed to the third.
Still, as the Bears rang a puck off the pipe with 12:23 left in the game, this had the potential to be another frustrating loss.
With 3:28 left in the game, Topeka’s Eric Brown was sent to the box for slashing. On the power play, Krajnik got the puck to LaBarge in front of the net, and LaBarge and Alex Klekotka took turns battling before LaBarge tapped in the pivotal goal just 22 seconds in to the power play.
“Special teams was the difference,” Topeka head coach Simon Watson said after the Bears were 2 for 3 with the extra man, and his side was 0 for 1.
In the overtime period and in the shootout, Enright, committed to Division I Bemidji State, came to the fore. In overtime, he saved two breakaways.
“He made some big saves down the stretch, in overtime and in the shootout,” Watson said. “Hats off to him.”
In the shootout, Enright stopped all three Topeka shooters. Andy Walker, who had been 0 for 2 on the shootout this season, scored for the Bears and that was all they needed.
“There’s a reason why he’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Petrich said of Enright. “He’s a great kid and we’re fortunate to have him.”
While players like LaBarge, Walker and Enright played the hero’s roles, Petrich said the victory was a team win made possible by compete and hustle, particularly with forwards hustling back to help on defense.
“It felt like a game we were going to win, sooner or later,” LaBarge said.
Saturday, Quinn Green gave the Pilots a 1-0 lead just 4:09 into the first period. Petrich said the goal came on a weird high tip.
The lead held up until Soldotna’s Preston Weeks, assisted by Logan Ritchie and Michael Spethmann, scored with 10:05 left in the game.
“It’s his first ever goal at home,” Petrich said of the captain. “It’s a big deal.”
Markuss Komuls, assisted by Krajnik and Spethmann, then scored with 32 seconds left in the game for the victory.
“It was a mad scrum with 30 seconds to go and Markuss Komuls, one of our best players, scored it,” Petrich said.
Enright made 36 saves for the Bears, while Emil Gransoe stopped 31 for the Pilots.
“To be a good team, your best player has got to be your goalie,” Petrich said. “It’s tough not to give him that notion.”
Things got a bit chippy in the second period as all but four of the game’s 136 penalty minutes were handed out.
“It’s two teams in the playoff hunt,” Petrich said. “It’s gonna be tight and they’re going to play hard. It was a great crowd again and exciting hockey.”
Kenai River hosts Corpus Christi (Texas) on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex.
Brown Bears 3, Pilots 2, SO
Topeka 0 2 0 0 0 — 2
Kenai River 1 0 1 0 1 — 3
First period — 1. Kenai River, LaBarge (Krajnik, Boucher), pp, 9:22. Penalties — Topeka 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Topeka, Green (Dahl, Ahlberg), 8:25; 3. Topeka, Scott (Thomas, Montie), 9:42. Penalties — Topeka 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, LaBarge (Klekotka, Krajnik), pp, 16:54. Penalties — Topeka 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — none.
Shootout — Topeka 0 (McCarthy NG, Quinn NG, Thomas NG); Kenai River 1 (Walker G, Krajnik NG).
Shots on goal — Topeka 6-6-6-0—18; Kenai River 12-7-6-0—25.
Goalies — Topeka, Gransoe (25 shots, 23 saves); Kenai River, Enright (18 shots, 16 saves).
Power plays — Topeka 0 for 1; Kenai River 2 for 3.
Brown Bears 2, Pilots 1
Topeka 1 0 0 — 1
Kenai River 0 0 2 — 2
First period — 1. Topeka, Green (Cervone, Ahlberg), 4:09. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Topeka 11 for 68:00; Kenai River 9 for 64:00.
Third period — 2. Kenai River, Weeks (Ritchie, Spethmann), 9:55; 3. Kenai River, Komuls (Krajnik, Spethmann), 19:28.
Shots on goal — Topeka 10-17-10—37; Kenai River 12-11-10—33.
Goalies — Topeka, Gransoe (33 shots, 31 saves); Kenai River, Enright (37 shots, 36 saves).
Power plays — Topeka 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 2.