The jubilation of the Northeast (Massachusetts) Generals on Friday was the disapppointment of the Kenai River Brown Bears.
Saturday, the Brown Bears were the ones jubilantly celebrating.
The Generals defeated the Brown Bears 4-3 on Friday in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, but Kenai River returned Saturday to score a nailbiting 2-1 win.
Jonathan Marzec slotted home the game-winning goal Saturday with 26 seconds left in regulation to send the Generals packing with a weekend split. Marzec corralled a difficult rebound opportunity on a bouncing puck and struck while the iron was hot.
Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton expressed dismay at the split, however, saying that the Bears needed wins on both nights to keep a head of steam rolling toward next weekend, when Kenai River hosts the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for a three-game homestand.
“We felt based on our recent play that we were going to come in here and do what we had to do to get four points,” Worlton said. “I thought we played with more intensity and more drive than (Friday). Their goalie played extremely well and made some difficult saves, but we probably had five or six wide open nets and couldn’t score.”
Friday’s loss put a dent in the playoff hopes of Kenai River.
As the Generals moved to 2-34-3-0, the Bears emerged from the weekend 10-27-2-0 and cut two points out of their deficit to the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division. Kenai River sits 12 points behind the Chill, which lost both games they played to Minnesota this weekend.
“They earned it,” Worlton said Friday. “We didn’t show up and took it for granted. Tip your hat to them.”
The Generals had a coaching change over Christmas break, with Joe Lovell taking over for Bryan Erikson, who remained assistant coach and general manager.
But Erikson is in charge of the team for the Alaska trip because Lovell couldn’t make the trip work on short notice. Both of Northeast’s wins have come after the break.
While the Generals don’t play on a big ice sheet like the sports complex, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suit them.
“That was the game plan and that’s what we worked on all week in practice — using our speed to our advantage,” Erikson said.
Northeast took the lead 7:27 into the first period when Anthony Mangano finished a two-on-one. With 5:33 left in the first, Kohei Sato, who Erikson said is the fastest player he’s seen in the league, sliced right up the middle of the defense for a 2-0 lead.
This isn’t the type of defense Worlton has come to expect from his team.
“They were growing and growing and growing,” Worlton said of the Bears. “This has nothing to do with losing to them and everything to do with my expectations.
“Our expectations are to be the best, and the best show up every night and find a way to win.”
Tyler Rock barrelled down the right side of the ice to cut the gap to 2-1 heading into the second, but Colton Bilek scored the lone goal of the second on a power play for a 3-1 advantage.
The Generals outshot the Bears 22-18 through two periods, but the Bears poured it on in the third period for a 19-4 advantage.
Alex Klekotka scored a rebound goal with 14:12 left in the game to make it 3-2, but then Generals goalie David Fessenden and his defense stood up to constant pressure.
Erikson said Fessenden kept his team in the game, and that his team also blocked 26 shots.
“The difference for us was getting in the shooting lanes,” he said.
Mangano, who leads the league in penalty minutes, scored his second goal of the game with three minutes left on a breakaway.
The Bears, who received 22 saves from Robbie Goor, battled late and got a goal from Evan Butcher with 54 seconds left, but couldn’t find the equalizer.
“We got rid of some kids who maybe weren’t as focused on hockey,” Erikson said. “It’s fun to win with this group of kids.”
In Saturday’s clash, the Generals scored just 83 seconds into the game with a shot from Matt Wiesner to take a quick 1-0 lead. The Bears responded by outshooting their opponents 12-6 in the period, but came away with nothing.
After a scoreless second period that saw Kenai River outshoot Northeast 16-13, the Bears finally cashed in with 13:41 left to go in the game. Alex Dingeldien notched the game-tying goal with help from Anthony Tzveyn and Jonas Warman.
The play set up Marzec’s late heroics.
Kenai River debuted Colt Hanks between the pipes, and Hanks delivered with 24 saves on 25 shots. The Bears received Hanks in a trade from Wilke Barre-Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights last week.
In preparation of a three-game homestand with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs that starts Thursday, Worlton said a lot will be on the line for Kenai River.
“Fairbanks is playing well as of late,” Worlton said. “We’re playing for the (Alaska) Ravn Cup, a playoff spot, and not only that, but to change the image of the Brown Bears, to what these fans and ownership and coaching staff have in mind.
“It’s a big weekend for us.”
Brown Bears 2, Generals 1
Northeast 1 0 0 — 1
Kenai River 0 0 2 — 2
First period — 1. Northeast, Wiesner (Mangano, Hartje), 1:23. Penalties — Northeast 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — no scoring. Penalties — Northeast 5 for 10:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 2. Kenai River, Dingeldien (Tzveyn, Warman), 6:19; 3. Kenai River, Marzec (Radetic, Butcher), 19:34. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Northeast 6-13-6—25; Kenai River 12-16-12—40.
Goalies — Northeast, Fessenden (40 shots, 38 saves); Kenai River, Hanks (25 shots, 24 saves).
Power plays — Northeast 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 6.
Generals 4, Brown Bears 3
Northeast 2 1 1 — 4
Kenai River 1 0 2 — 3
First period — 1. Northeast, Mangano (Wiesner), 7:27; 2. Northeast, Sato (Bilek, Jallen), 14:27; 3. Kenai River, Rock (Sterne), 17:29. Penalties — Northeast 2 for 12:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Northeast, Bilek (Sato, Halpin), pp, 17:36. Penalties — Northeast 5 for 21:00; Kenai River 6 for 23:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Klekotka (Marzec), 5:48; 6. Northeast, Mangano (Perunovich), 17:00; 7. Kenai River, Butcher (Stewart), 19:06. Penalties — Northeast 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Northeast 14-8-4—26; Kenai River 9-9-19—37.
Goalies — Northeast, Fessenden (37 shots, 34 saves); Kenai River, Goor (26 shots, 22 saves).