The Kenai River Brown Bears returned home for the first time this season to claim victories Friday and Saturday over the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League play.
The Bears won 5-3 on Friday and 4-3 on Saturday.
The victories were key as the Bears chase their first playoff berth since 2014.
Kenai River improved to 18-20-1-1, good for 38 points and the fourth slot out of the Midwest Division. Chippewa falls to 10-24-2-3, good for 25 points. With just eight games left for the Bears and nine left for the Steel, Chippewa is running out of time to make up the points.
The two squads finish their three-game series today with a 5 p.m. game at the sports complex. The game is sold out.
Before Friday, the Bears had last played at the sports complex on March 7, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the rest of the 2019-20 season, then the pandemic kept Kenai River from playing in Soldotna until Friday.
The spectator limit at the sports complex is 250 due to the number of COVID-19 cases in the area.
“It’s nice to be back,” said Max Helgeson, who was born and raised in Anchorage. “It’s tough to be limited to 250 fans because I know a lot of people have been waiting to watch us play. It’s been almost 14 months since we played here. It’s a fun environment to play in.”
The Bears, who had been off since April 3, fell behind 3-1 after two periods Friday before dominating the third period. The comeback started when Helgeson scored a power-play goal with 18:45 left in the game to cut the gap to 3-2.
“Our big thing going into the third period was scoring on the power play,” Helgeson said. “We knew if we scored we’d be down one with 19 minutes left.”
After Helgeson’s goal, Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said he felt something he had not felt all season — a little fan-aided momentum shift to his team. Murdock said the Bears had a nice temporary home in Breezy Point, Minnesota, but most of the time supporters were limited to players’ parents.
“In the third there was a little momentum shift when we got the first one, and it felt like the fans helped that,” Murdock said.
Kenai River took advantage of the momentum shift with Brandon Lajoie scoring with 13:18 remaining and Shayne Tomlinson lighting the lamp with 10:22 left for a 4-3 lead.
Chippewa responded fiercely to losing the lead, swarming the Kenai River net, with Bears goalie Luke Pavicich scrambling on the ground to keep the puck out of the net. Pavicich appeared to be out of the play when Chippewa collected the puck and tried a wrap-around, but Pavicich’s pad appeared out of nowhere to preserve the lead.
Pavicich is committed to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which recently won the NCAA Division I hockey title. Chippewa head coach Mike Janda said Pavicich is the top goalie in the league.
“He’s committed to the University of Massachusetts for a reason,” Chippewa head coach Mike Janda said. “He’s a stud. It’s not a surprise when he makes saves like that.”
Chippewa pulled the goalie with 1:39 left and had several good chances until Ryan Reid, of Anchorage, clinched the game with an empty-netter with .1 seconds remaining.
Murdock said his team had a lack of urgency in falling behind 3-1 after two periods. Ryan Waltman and Evan Tanos put the Steel up 2-0 after the first. After Lucas Wahlin scored his ninth goal in eight games for the Bears, Grisha Gotovets put Chippewa up 3-1 headed to the third.
“We might have had better chances in the first two periods, but we didn’t get those shots on goal,” Murdock said.
Helgeson said the time off may have showed.
“Three weeks off is not necessarily hard, but it’s different getting back to game speed,” he said. “That’s not an excuse, but the first two periods were a little slow.”
Janda said the Steel are still learning after Janda took over as head coach on the morning of April 16 after an ownership change. The Steel had played April 15, and played April 16, so obviously there has not been a lot of time to acclimate to Janda’s system.
“We looked really good when we had the puck on our stick,” Janda said. “We have to figure out what to do when we don’t have the puck.”
Pavicich stopped 34 for Kenai River, while Grant Boldt had 32 saves for the Steel.
Saturday, the Bears grabbed a 3-0 lead and held on for the victory.
Kenai River came out strong in the first period, outshooting the Steel 11-5 and taking a 2-0 lead. Cam Blanton started the scoring 11:50 into the first period, then Morgan Winters made it 2-0 with 4:08 until the break.
With 29 seconds left in the second period, Wahlin put the Bears up 3-0. That’s the 10th goal in nine games for Wahlin.
Thanks to special teams, Chippewa battled back in the third period.
Liam Hansson scored just 20 seconds into the third on a power play, but Peter Morgan scored just 35 seconds later for a 4-3 lead.
The Steel kept coming, with Spencer Cox scoring on the power play with 12:40 to play and Daniel Rozsival cutting it to 4-3 with 11:24 left.
Pavicich, who was called upon to make 18 saves, was able to close the door from there. Berk Berkeliev stopped 17 for the Steel.
Brown Bears 5, Steel 3
Chippewa 2 1 0 —3
Kenai River 0 1 4 —5
First period — 1. Chippewa, Waltman (Hansson, Brown), 1:28; 2. Chippewa, Tanos (Hansson), 14:04. Penalties — none.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Wahlin (Morgan, Poellinger), 5:13; 4. Chippewa, Gotovets (Famulak, Baker), 15:38. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Helgeson (Dodge, Wahlin), pp, 1:15; 6. Kenai River, Lajoie (Veri, Thrun), 6:42; 7. Kenai River, Tomlinson (Blanton, Wahlin), 9:38; 8. Kenai River, Reid (Morgan, Dodge), en, 19:59. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 14-12-11—37; Kenai River 10-11-16—37.
Goalies — Chippewa, Boldt (36 shots, 32 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (37 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — Chippewa 0 for 1; Kenai River 1 for 2.
Brown Bears 4, Steel 3
Chippewa 0 0 3 —3
Kenai River 2 1 1 1 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Blanton (Winters, Veri), 11:50; 2. Kenai River, Winters (Green, Thrun), 15:52. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Wahlin (Dodge), 19:31. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Chippewa, Hansson (Oyler, Baker), pp, 0:20; 5. Kenai River, Morgan (Dodge, Wahlin), 0:35; 6. Chippewa, Cox (Lindstrom, Hansson), pp, 7:20; 7. Chippewa, Rozsival (Waltman, Hansson), 8:36. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 5-13-13—31; Kenai River 11-9-12—32.
Goalies — Chippewa, Berkeliev (32 shots, 28 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (31 shots, 28 saves).