The Kenai River Brown Bears’ 3-2 victory over the Springfield Jr. Blues on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex was the first in 19 tries for the Bears at home this season and the first North American Hockey League triumph in three tries for new coach Jeff Worlton.
The coach, whose squad then lost 3-2 to the Blues on Saturday, left little doubt which Friday first mattered more to him.
“It is them, it is not me,” Worlton said outside of a jubilant locker room. “We’re a team. I’m not bigger than any of those guys in the room.”
The Bears, who are now 3-34-1 but have won two of their last five, got a pair of goals Friday from Evan Butcher, two assists from Austin Junger and stellar goaltending from Nick Nast, but all parties involved agreed it was a team win.
“The Brown Bears came out competing hard and that was the difference in the game,” said Springfield coach Tony Zasowski, whose team is 20-14-4 after breaking a five-game losing streak Saturday. “Their coach really had them working hard — finishing their checks and blocking shots.
“All of their goals were right in front of our goaltender.”
Worlton said a hard-checking, shot-blocking, net-crashing game is that for which he is aiming.
“I think that’s the way the game is supposed to be played,” he said. “That’s all the things they worked hard on all week in practice.”
The Bears were facing Tommy Nappier, an Ohio State recruit who just this week was ranked No. 26 among North American goalies in NHL Central Scouting’s Mid-Term Rankings.
The best way to beat a top-notch goalie is to get a ton of traffic to the net. That’s how the Bears got their three first-period goals, starting with a tally by Butcher, assisted by Austin Junger and Andrew Heckmann, just 1 minutes, 58 seconds, into the game.
“They were definitely buzzing right off the hop,” Nast said of his teammates. “We got three goals in the first period, and that makes it a lot easier.”
With 10:37 left in the first, Sam Craggs tied it for Springfield on the power play when the puck took a weird bounce when the Bears tried to clear it from in front of their net.
With 6:55 left in the first, Gunnar Goodmanson, assisted by Jake Eubank and Jordan Hank, answered with a power-play goal for a 2-1 lead.
Eubank, the Kenai Central product, left the ice with a bloodied nose in the second period but returned after less than three minutes of game time.
“He played well,” Worlton said. “He made us better. I’m excited to have him here.”
Just 19 seconds after the Goodmanson tally, Butcher, assisted by Charles Spetz and Junger, pushed the lead to 3-1.
From there, it was up to the Bears defense and Nast to hold the fort. The Bears were outshot 16-8 in the second period, but closed by outshooting the Blues 12-9 in the third. Nast had 34 saves, while Nappier had 25.
“A lot of the shots were from the outside, but when they did get in front of him he played well,” Worlton said of Nast.
The biggest gut check came with 5:20 left in the game, when Craggs tipped in a shot from the point by Matt Long. The Bears have had trouble holding third-period leads this season, but showed no panic with the lead cut to 3-2.
“We harp on d-zone coverage and they’ve bought into it,” Worlton said. “It didn’t surprise me. I saw it in practice all the time.”
And that allowed the 433 fans to see their first win of the season.
“It was definitely nice to get our first win at home,” Nast said. “It was a great feeling to have all of the crowd supporting us the whole game.
“It was unbelievable.”
Saturday, the Bears managed to outshoot the Blues 27-25, but couldn’t post an advantage on the scoreboard.
“We’ve got to learn to win,” Worlton said. “We’ve got to learn to play on that edge of control and chaos. If we do, we’re a really good team.”
Brennan Blaszczak put Springfield up 1-0 after the first, then Josh Bell and Long scored for a 3-0 lead entering the third.
Kenai River goalie Magnus Lindhe was pulled in favor of Nast after the second goal of the game.
In the third, the Bears stepped it up and battled back, with Junger, assisted by Jordan Hank and Adam Kresl, cutting the gap to 3-1 with 12:27 to play. Junger struck again with just six seconds left, assisted by Butcher and Joey Sardina, with the extra attacker on the ice. Junger collected the puck from the side and caught the goalie offsides to slip it in.
“The whole team stepped up in the third,” Worlton said. “Everyone played well in the third period, and I thought it was a good team comeback.”
The Bears were unable to win the puck on the ensuing faceoff at mid ice, sealing the win for the Blues.
Worlton left no doubt that the sting of Saturday’s loss went a long way in diminishing the good vibes from Friday.
“We’re not here to lose, we’re here to win,” Worlton said. “Yeah it stings, but if you look at the positive, we split with a playoff team. If we had five more minutes, we may have tied it up.”
The Bears now face a seven-game road trip, starting with Thursday, Friday and Saturday games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Brown Bears 3, Jr. Blues 2
Springfield 1 0 1 —2
Kenai River 3 0 0 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Butcher (Junger, Heckmann), 1:58; 2. Springfield, Craggs (un.), pp, 9:23; 3. Kenai River, Goodmanson (Eubank, Hank), pp, 13:05; 4. Kenai River, Butcher (Spetz, Junger), 13:24. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Springfield 4 for 21:00; Kenai River 5 for 23:00.
Third period — 5. Springfield, Craggs (Long), 14:40. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Springfield 11-16-9—36; Kenai River 8-8-12—28.
Goalies — Springfield, Nappier (28 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Nast (36 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — Springfield 1 for 4, Kenai River 1 for 3.
Jr. Blues 3, Brown Bears 2
Springfield 1 2 0 —3
Kenai River 0 0 2 —2
First period — 1. Springfield, Blaszczak (Tomiak, Knyzhov), 4:44. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Springfield, Bell (Radetic, Fear), 3:32; 3. Springfield, Long (Rotenberger, Blaszczak), 16:09. Penalties — none.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Junger (Hank, Kresl), 7:33; 5. Kenai River, Junger (Butcher, Sardina), ea, 19:54. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 4-11-10—25; Kenai River 8-10-9—27.
Goalies — Springfield, Maggorie (27 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Lindhe (8 shots, 6 saves), Nast (17 shots, 16 saves).