With everybody else in the North American Hockey League at least two games over .500, the Kenai River Brown Bears notched a sweep of the Minnesota Magicians on Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to keep pace in the standings.
The Bears, who notched their first sweep of the season, improve to 10-11-0, good for 20 points but also last in the division. Coulee Region (Wisconsin) is in fourth with 21 points, while the Magicians, now 1-3 against the Bears, fall to 11-10-0 and 22 points.
Saturday, the Bears capped a weekend of great special teams play by scoring on the power play with 1 minute, 14 seconds, to play in a 3-2 victory in front of 694.
Maurin Bouvet slid the puck to Tyler Andrews for a shot from the point, and Jack Gessert tapped home the rebound.
Bouvet finished with two assists and a goal on the night, while Gessert had a goal and an assist.
“Their chemistry is very good right now — it’s scary,” Beuaparlant said of Bouvet and Gessert. “They have a good sense of where the other one is on the ice.”
The coach added that Alex Jackstadt was added to their line and complemented the two very well.
The Magicians came into the series with the top power play in the league, but finished 0 for 7 over two games, while the Bears were 4 for 9.
“I think our guys prepared very well on special teams this week,” Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “It’s good to see the guys believing they are a good hockey club and seeing their work in practice pay off.”
Beauparlant said it took the squad’s most consistent hockey of the season to pull off the sweep, and said the great special teams play was a total team effort, with Austin Chavez leading the way by playing both forward and defense.
“We stuck with our game plan through 120 minutes no matter the results,” he said. “We left everything out on the ice.”
Andrews started the scoring in the first period with a power-play goal, assisted by Ben Campbell and Bouvet, but Brady Happner would answer for the Magicians before the period was up.
In the second period, Kane Durment put the Magicians up 2-1, but that was after the Bears killed off a five-minute major and a 5-on-3. Beauparlant said killing those penalties was a huge point in the game.
Bouvet, assisted by Gessert and Andrews, drew the Bears level heading into the final period.
Alec Derks made 23 saves for the Bears, while Cole Weaver had 29 for the Magicians.
“We talked about inconsistent goaltending last weekend, but he was consistent both games this weekend,” Beauparlant said. “He had a couple of huge saves in the third period when it was 2-2.”
Friday, the Bears used a strong finish to propel themselves to a 4-2 win in front of 901 fans. Kenai River defenseman Chavez mailed home the game-winner early in the third period.
“It’s preparation,” Beauparlant said. “We’ve talked to our guys about being ready and executing right from the get-go and not resting on what we accomplished tonight.
“It’s a step in the right direction.”
Friday against Minnesota, the Brown Bears went 2 for 4 on the power play. The Bears also displayed an impressive penalty kill, not only stopping all three Minnesota opportunities in the game but holding the Magicians to only three shots on goal in the third period with two power plays. The Magicians had the top power play in the league coming into the contest.
“Special teams are important,” Beauparlant said. “It can swing a game either way. … We were solid in both aspects tonight and will need to be again tomorrow.”
The win is the third time out of seven this season that Kenai River has started a weekend series with a win. None resulted in sweeps until Saturday.
Kenai River defenseman Campbell notched his first goal of the season in the first period, then added a second in the third with an empty-netter, and forward Gessert had a pair of assists.
“It’s important to win Friday night, it gives us a chance to sweep,” Campbell said. “You can’t sweep Saturday unless you win Friday.”
Campbell, a native Minnesotan himself, said he believes the efficiency of the team has improved since the last series — a sweep at the hands of Fairbanks.
“It felt good to rebound right away when we got on the power play,” Campbell said. “We’ve been working on it quite a bit, and it’s finally starting to click.”
Things did not look rosy for the Bears in the early minutes. Minnesota netted the first goal a mere 28 seconds into the game, as Lukas Laub found some space near the right circle and scored easily on Derks, who ultimately saved 21 of 23 shots on the night.
“It’s never good when they score early, but you gotta stay up on the bench,” Campbell said. “It’s got to be all positivity coming from the team. No negativity, can’t get down on guys, and you just gotta worry about getting back into it.”
Just past the halfway mark of the first period, however, the Bears responded while on the power play. Thirty seconds after a slashing penalty, the puck bounced out of a frantic shuffle in front of the Minnesota goal and right at the stick of Campbell, who scored the equalizer.
Just 48 ticks later, Bouvet put the Bears ahead with a slick shot on an odd-man rush.
After Thomas Delaney responded with a goal 50 seconds after that to tie the game at two goals apiece, that was how it stayed for the next 33:29 of the game.
One of the biggest moments came early in the third period, when the Magicians were handed a five-minute penalty after Minnesota forward Kelly O’Brien was ejected for head contact.
It took just over two minutes for the Bears to score the go-ahead goal. Chavez corralled the puck and shot from the left circle to put the Bears ahead.
After a five-minute penalty by Kenai River allowed Fairbanks to score twice in the final period of play last Saturday, Beauparlant said it felt like a bit of retribution.
“Whenever you go on the power play, you want to score and create chances,” Beauparlant said. “Last week, a five-minute major (penalty) came back to bite us, and this week it helped us.”
The Bears had to stave off one final penalty in the final two minutes of the game while trying to preserve the one-goal lead, but only 60 seconds went by before Campbell managed to get his stick on the puck and send it toward the empty net of Minnesota for the insurance goal.
Even with two penalty-kill situations, Kenai River outshot Minnesota 17-3 in the period.
“We’ve been in that situation two or three times with the lead, so we’ve had a solid penalty kill all year,” Beauparlant said. “I thought our guys did a nice job of giving a second effort to make the plays happen.”
Campbell added, “Our goal is to be over 100 percent on our special teams combined. It’s good to see success on both ends of the ice.”
The Bears host the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Brown Bears 3, Magicians 2
Kenai River 1 1 1 —3
Minnesota 1 1 0 —2
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Andrews (Campbell, Bouvet), PP, 1:13; 2. Minnesota, Heppner (Collins), 6:03. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 14:00; Minnesota 4 for 16:00.
2nd period — 3. Minnesota, Durment (Christensen, Michaelis), 16:22; 4. Kenai River, Bouvet (Gessert, Andrews), 19:23. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 9:00; Minnesota 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — 5. Kenai River, Gessert (Andrews, Bouvet), PP, 18:46. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 6:00; Minnesota 4 for 18:00.
Shots — Kenai River 13-10-9—32; Minnesota 9-12-4—25.
Goalies — Kenai River, Derks (25 shots, 23 saves); Minnesota, Weaver (32 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 2 for 5; Minnesota 0 for 4.
Brown Bears 4, Magicians 2
Kenai River 2 0 2 —4
Minnesota 2 0 0 —2
1st period — 1. Minnesota, Laub (un.), :28; 2. Kenai River, Campbell (Rudin, Gessert), pp, 10:31; 3. Kenai River, Bouvet (Gessert), 11:18; 4. Minnesota, Delaney (Michaelis, Uglem), 12:09. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — None. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Minnesota 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 5. Kenai River, Chavez (Nickels), pp, 5:38; 6. Kenai River, Campbell (Andrews, Jackstadt), en, 18:50. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Minnesota 3 for 17:00.
Shots — Kenai River 12-6-17—35; Minnesota 12-8-3—23.
Goalies — Kenai River, Derks (23 shots, 21 saves); Minnesota, Amsden (34 shots, 31 saves).