The Kenai River Brown Bears are on the verge of their first playoff berth since 2014 thanks to a little home cooking.
Kenai River finished off a three-game sweep of the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel with a 5-2 Sunday victory at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League play.
The Bears and Steel are fighting for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division. Kenai River now has a 19-20-1-1 record, for 40 points, and Chippewa is 10-25-2-3, for 25 points.
The Brown Bears won the season series with the Steel 7-4. With eight games left for the Steel, each win counting as two points and a deficit of 15 points in the standings, the Steel have no more room for error.
The pivotal sweep by the Brown Bears comes in their first appearance at the sports complex this season. Kenai River originally planned to play the first half of its season in the Lower 48, then come to Alaska in January.
The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in any plans this season, though, as Kenai River had just four games played when it had to pause from Nov. 14 to Jan. 2 due to coronavirus mitigation measures in Minnesota.
“It’s been a harsh season with our living situation and COVID,” said Brown Bears forward Theo Thrun, who had an assist Sunday. “It’s been hard living in all these different places. It’s nice to be settled in Alaska.”
The Bears got back to Alaska on April 6 and had nearly three weeks of practice to get ready for the big series.
“We’ve been wanting to get back up here for quite some time,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said. “We finally were able to come back up and started right away with a sweep.”
The spectator restriction is set at 250 due to the number of COVID-19 cases on the central Kenai Peninsula right now. While nobody on the Brown Bears side is saying that’s ideal, Murdock and players said it is way better than what they have been dealing with this season.
“Compared to what we’ve had, 250 felt like a packed house,” Thrun said.
The shift back to Alaska showed up in other subtle ways. Murdock pointed out this team is built to play on the large ice sheet at the sports complex, so it was nice to finally play there.
“I can use my speed, and I have more time and space,” Thrun said.
The forward also added that he is in the best shape of the season. He said Murdock has been making the team run stairs after practice. Thrun said extra conditioning like that didn’t happen this season because the team was always tired from constantly moving from place to place. The Bears outscored the Steel 8-3 in the third period in the series.
Murdock also said players from Alaska were clearly happy to be back home and played like it. One of them — defenseman Ryan Reid — led the team to victory with two goals and an assist Sunday. Reid had his first goal of the season Friday.
Reid put the Bears up 1-0 in the first period with a power-play goal, but Chippewa’s Liam Hansson answered with a power-play strike before the end of the first.
The second period saw Chippewa’s Jack Brown score, only to have Kenai River’s Daymin Dodge answer with a backhand just nine seconds later.
With 12:10 left in the game, Reid put the Bears ahead to stay. Brandon McNamara added a power-play goal with 5:58 left, then Morgan Winters scored on the empty net with 43 seconds left.
Chippewa coach Mike Janda said his team played well all weekend, but didn’t get fortunate bounces and had a hard time solving Kenai River goaltender Luke Pavicich. Pavicich saved 37, while Chippewa’s Grant Boldt stopped 35.
“I thought he stole the game tonight,” Janda said of Pavicich.
Janda pointed to a save on a back-door play in the second period and numerous saves during third-period scrums in front of the net as differences in the game.
Murdock said his team did fine with offensive zone possession this weekend, but needs to create more offense with that possession.
Overall, though, he’s happy the Bears are headed in the right direction. The team hadn’t played since April 3 before Friday’s game.
“Twenty days off is a long time at the end of a long season,” Murdock said. “I think the guys were starting to go into summer mode a bit. I’m glad they were able to reel it back in.”
Murdock also is happy with the way the team responded to some adversity. Kenai River has an expanded 27-man roster this season due to COVID-19, but by the end of the series the Bears had only five defensemen and one goalie available from that 27-man roster.
The Bears now host the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, who are in first place in the Midwest Division, in a three-game series at the sports complex. Thursday’s game is at 7 p.m., while Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. All games are sold out.
Brown Bears 5, Steel 2
Chippewa 1 1 0 —2
Kenai River 1 1 3 —5
First period — 1. Kenai River, Reid (Dubicki, Vieten), pp, 3:21; 2. Chippewa, Hansson (Baker, Oyler), pp, 16:49. Penalties — Chippewa 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. Chippewa, Brown (Janda, Benz), 6:48; 4. Kenai River, Dodge (Wahlin, Hill), 6:57. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Reid (Helgeson, Poellinger), 7:50; 6. Kenai River, McNamara (Thrun, Lajoie), pp, 14:02; 7. Kenai River, Winters (Reid, Veri), en, 19:17. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 10-12-17—39; Kenai River 12-11-17—40.
Goalies — Chippewa, Boldt (39 shots, 35 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (39 shots, 37 saves).