The Kenai River Brown Bears snapped a 17-game losing streak with a 3-2 overtime victory against the New Jersey Titans on Saturday in front of 226 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“It feels good,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “It’s a lot of pressure. The team bought in today. All 20 guys helped.”
The Brown Bears improved to 4-48-3 by defeating a team in the heat of the chase for the North American Hockey League East Division. The Titans fell to 33-19-4, as a result falling into a tie for the division lead with the Aston (Pennsylvania) Rebels.
“We beat a first-place team,” Worlton said. “We should feel good about that and excited about that.”
The Titans jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a first-period goal by Jesse Farabee and a second-period goal by Andrew Durham. Kenai River goalie Nick Nast was pulled after the second goal for Magnus Lindhe because Worlton said the team needed a spark.
“Lindhe didn’t let in a goal,” Worlton said. “He came in cold and made some key saves. He saved a clean breakaway with about seven minutes left in the third.”
The Brown Bears used their power play, which is the league’s worst by percentage, to get back into the game. Kenai River finished 5 for 15 on the power play in the two-game series.
Jordan Hank, assisted by Evan Butcher and Connor Inger, had a five-on-three power-play goal with 5 minutes, 2 seconds, left in the second period.
With just 25 seconds left in the game, Hank, assisted by Jake Hartje and Butcher, tied the second on a power-play goal where the Bears also had an extra attacker.
Worlton said the power-play units showed great patience on both goals.
Then, just 1:09 into overtime, Connor Nilson scored on assists from Butcher and Davis Sebald. Worlton said Butcher made a nice play to find Nilson, who scored on his third try. Butcher had six points on the weekend, playing a part in every Kenai River goal.
Worlton said his defensemen — Nilson, Hartje, Preston Weeks, Sebald and Ricard Regala — were the difference in the game.
Friday, after falling behind 2-1 in the second period, the Titans responded with five unanswered goals in a 7-3 victory over the Brown Bears in front of 324 at the sports complex.
“We didn’t compete for 60 minutes, same tune, different day,” Worlton said. “We had 14 or 15 guys competing, and the rest of the guys were out to lunch.”
Durham had a hat trick and Farabee added a goal and two assists as the Bears dropped their 17th straight.
“We needed to win this game, plain and simple,” New Jersey coach Rich McKenna said.
The Titans coach said his squad played hard in the first period, but didn’t play as a team. New Jersey got out of the period with a 1-0 lead thanks to a Durham power-play strike.
With 12 minutes, 36 seconds, left in the second period, Bears forward Inger tied the game with a power-play goal assisted by Jake Hartje and Evan Butcher.
About three minutes later, Butcher gave the Bears the lead when he split two Titans defenders on the power play and beat goalie Spencer Wright with a wrister.
Worlton said forwards Butcher, Inger and Joey Sardina are coming on.
“In the last couple of weeks, Butcher has elevated his game,” the coach said. “He’s playing, competing more in the corners and showing more grit.”
With 8:39 left in the period, Kenai River goalie Lindhe had some trouble handling the puck behind the net and Bruno Birzitis turned it into a goal.
Worlton said he didn’t have a problem with the way Lindhe played, saying the goalie made saves in the first period to keep the Bears in the game.
“I was yelling at our guys so I didn’t see the goal by Bruno,” McKenna said. “Bruno’s an elite player and our top players stepped up when we needed it.”
With 6:00 left in the second, Kenai Central product Jake Eubank appeared to have his first NAHL goal, but it was disallowed when it was ruled the goal never went in.
“If that goal is not disallowed, it could have been a different game,” McKenna said.
But Raymond Brice, Farabee and Durham scored before the end of the second for a 5-2 lead. McKenna said Brice’s goal seemed to wake up his side.
“We weren’t happy,” the coach said. “We knew the guys weren’t playing our game or our system.”
After going down 6-2 in the third on a goal by Joseph Schuler, the Brown Bears got one back when Sardina scored a power-play, extra-attacker goal on assists by Tanner Dufault and Butcher.
But the empty-net ploy immediately evened out when Durham completed his hat trick from center ice.
Kenai River takes on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex in the last two home games of the season.
Titans 7, Brown Bears 3
New Jersey 1 4 2 —7
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
First period — 1. New Jersey, Durham (Miller, Weaver), pp, 11:19. Penalties — New Jersey 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Inger (Hartje, Butcher), pp, 7:24; 3. Kenai River, Butcher (Weeks, Bowe), pp, 10:37; 4. New Jersey, Birzitis (Smits, Farabee), 11:21; 5. New Jersey, Brice (Menslage, Hamilton), 16:36; 6. New Jersey, Farabee (Smits, Birzitis), pp, 18:27; 7. New Jersey, Durham (Miller, Gelatt), 19:40. Penalties — New Jersey 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 8. New Jersey, Schuler (Brice, Cusanelli), 9:30; 9. Kenai River, Sardina (Dufault, Butcher), pp, ea, 16:30; 10. New Jersey, Durham (Hamilton, Farabee), pp, en, 17:52. Penalties — New Jersey 5 for 26:00; Kenai River 4 for 16:00.
Shots on goal — New Jersey 9-14-9—32; Kenai River 4-18-10—32.
Goalies — New Jersey, Wright (32 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Linde (23 shots, 18 saves); Nast (8 shots, 7 saves).
Power plays — New Jersey 3 for 6, Kenai River 3 for 6.
Brown Bears 3, Titans 2, OT
New Jersey 1 1 0 0 —2
Kenai River 0 1 1 1 —3
First period — 1. New Jersey, Birzitis (Weaver, Smits), 9:20. Penalties — New Jersey 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. New Jersey, Durham (Hascic, DeVito), pp, 10:17; 3. Kenai River, Hank (Butcher, Inger), pp, 14:58. Penalties — New Jersey 5 for 18:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Hank (Hartje, Butcher), pp, ea, 19:35. Penalties — New Jersey 4 for 10:00; Kenai River 5 for 20:00.
Overtime — 5. Kenai River, Nilson (Butcher, Sebald), 1:09.
Shots on goal — New Jersey 11-7-10-0—28; Kenai River 7-6-7-1—21.
Goalies — New Jersey, Berry (20 shots, 18 saves); Kenai River, Nast (11 shots, 9 saves); Lindhe (17 shots, 17 saves).