The Kenai River Brown Bears swept the New Mexico Ice Wolves on Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League action.
Friday, the Bears snapped a seven-game losing streak by defeating the Ice Wolves 4-3 after a wild third period. Saturday, the Bears rolled to an 8-2 victory.
Kenai River is now 24-13-2-3 and in second in the Midwest Division, while New Mexico falls to 8-28-2-2 and is in sixth in the South Division.
Friday, the final 20 minutes featured two lead changes and a tie, with Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik notching the game-winner with 2 minutes, 37 seconds, left on the clock.
The Bears won for the first time since Dec. 20 and matched their win total from last year.
“We knew it would be a greasy game, a back-and-forth game,” Krajnik said. “We go by a saying, ‘Winners win,’ and that prevailed tonight.”
This week, for the third time this season, Kenai River of the Tier II NAHL saw a player move up to the Tier I United States Hockey League. Theo Thrun, second on the team in points and first in goals, went to the Omaha (Nebraska) Lancers.
Thrun’s move and the team’s recent slump triggered a shakeup of the lines by head coach Kevin Murdock and associate head coach Dan Bogdan that paid dividends Friday.
The top line lost Thrun, so Anchorage’s Max Helgeson joined with Krajnik and Logan Ritchie. Krajnik and Helgeson played with and against each other growing up. Krajnik said the duo put that chemistry together to produce the game-winning goal.
“It worked out well,” Krajnik said. “The coaches did a good job matching up guys who play well together.”
Jack Quinn joined Helgeson’s old line with Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie and Anchorage’s Skylar Gutierrez. That was the only line not to score.
Daymin Dodge replaced Cody Moline on a line with Wasilla’s Porter Schachle and Peter Morgan. That line produced two goals, with Morgan giving the Bears a 1-0 lead in the second period.
New Mexico’s Emil Gabrielson the scored twice in the first 6:23 of the third period to put the Ice Wolves ahead 2-1.
“Emil is one of our older guys,” New Mexico head coach Phil Fox said. “He’s consistently been our best forward all year.”
The Bears answered when Schachle tipped in a shot from Adam Szubert with 10:06 showing on the clock.
Just 15 seconds later, Schachle was out of the game after taking New Mexico’s Connor Kemp to the ice after a spirited scrap.
Schachle’s old linemate would come through with 5:12 left. Moline put the Bears up 3-2.
“Cody’s goal stands out because he had to hustle to get to a good spot after his two linemates created a turnover,” Murdock said.
With 3:58 left, Nex Mexico’s Brandon Holt somehow threaded a puck through traffic and into the net from just inside the blue line, setting up Krajnik’s heroics less than a minute and a half later.
“There were a lot of chances back and forth in the third period,” Fox said. “They were able to get the better hand and win.”
After a rough start after the holiday break, Kenai River goalie Landon Pavlisin got back in the win column with 30 saves, while Henrik Laursen stopped 39 for the Ice Wolves.
Krajnik said defensemen Max Osborne, of Anchorage, and Connor Scachill, both acquired within the last two weeks, make a big difference by clearing bodies from out in front of the net so the goalies have room to do their work.
“There for a while, I was worried we were starting to forget how to win,” Murdock said. “The last three games, we’ve gotten better and better.”
Saturday, Adam Szubert, assisted by Daymin Dodge, scored the lone goal of the first period.
In the second period goals went to Logan Ritchie, assisted by Zach Krajnik and Max Helgeson; Jack Quinn, assisted by JJ Boucher; Laudon Poellinger, assisted by Peter Morgan and Max Helgeson; and Dylan Hadfield, assisted by Boucher and Poellinger.
The third saw Poellinger score on an assist by Morgan, and a Dodge goal, and a Brandon Lajoie goal on an assist from Skylar Gutierrez.
Kenai River now goes on an eight-game road trip, starting with three games in Fairbanks.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Wolves 3
New Mexico 0 0 3 —3
Kenai River 0 1 3 —4
First period — none. Penalties — none.
Second period — 1. Kenai River, Morgan (Schachle, Dodge), 12:35. Penalties — New Mexico 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 2. New Mexico, Gabrielson (Prouty, Lorinchak), 1:49; 3. New Mexico, Gabrielson (Ekberg), 6:23; 4. Kenai River, Schachle (Szubert, Morgan), 9:54; 5. Kenai River, Moline (Poellinger, LaBarge), 14:48; 6. New Mexico, Holt (Gabrielson), 16:02; 7. Kenai River, Krajnik (Helgeson, Szubert), 17:23. Penalties — New Mexico 3 for 17:00; Kenai River 2 for 15:00.
Shots on goal — New Mexico 12-6-15—33; Kenai River 17-10-16—43.
Goalies — New Mexico, Laursen (43 shots, 39 saves); Kenai River, Pavlisin (33 shots, 30 saves).