Friday night marked the return of defenseman Bryan Huggins to the lineup and the return of the Kenai River Brown Bears to the win column.
After having a 10-game win streak interrupted by two losses to the Minnesota Magicians last weekend, Kenai River defeated the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets 5-2 on Friday in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex behind the game-winner from Huggins.
Saturday, the Bears continued to roll, taking down the Jets 8-1 and becoming the top-scoring team in the league.
Huggins, a 17-year-old defenseman committed to Division I Lake Superior State University, injured his knee in the home opener against the Jets on Oct. 11. Friday, his wrist shot from the slot with 11 minutes, 28 seconds, left in the game gave the Bears a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
“It feels great to be back in the win column,” Huggins said. “It’s really special for me because it’s my first game back and my first goal. It’s also the team I got hurt against.”
The Brown Bears move to 19-7-1-2 and cling to first place in the Midwest Division by a single point over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Kenai River, which finished off a 10-2 homestand, now goes on the road for nine games, starting Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues. The Bears don’t return to the sports complex until Jan. 17.
The Bears started quickly Friday, getting goals from Cody Moline, assisted by Peter Morgan and Wasilla’s Porter Schachle, and Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik, assisted by Theo Thrun, to take a 2-0 lead with 4:11 to play in the first period.
Janesville’s Brandon McNamara then changed the momentum by dragging the puck through the slot and beating Kenai River goalie Landon Pavlisin with just 8 seconds left in the first.
“It’s happening too much,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said. “We’re giving up too many goals in the last minute of the first period and it’s usually after we’ve been playing well.”
Huggins has been practicing for a week, but he said he still wasn’t up to game speed and made the initial mistake that led to the goal.
“I should have chipped it out,” Huggins said. “The guys picked me up and got me back in the game.”
The Jets used that surge at the end of the first period to totally control the second period. Pavlisin was excellent in the frame, ironically giving up the lone goal when he batted the puck into the net off the back of his glove.
“That one goal — you can’t put it on him,” Huggins said. “We didn’t give him much help.”
While Janesville had the lion’s share of chances in the period, Jets head coach Corey Leivermann said his team didn’t get to the net for rebound opportunities, and just a first shot was not good enough against Pavlisin.
“They’ve got a good goalie,” Leivermann said. “He made some key saves.”
The third period saw the momentum swing to Kenai River.
“In the third period, they came out ready to play and we sat back and watched,” Leivermann said.
In the middle of the period, Kenai River’s top-scoring line of Krajnik, Logan Ritchie and Thrun generated two great chances on a shift, but didn’t finish. After the Schachle-Morgan-Moline line followed with another bevy of chances, Murdock came right back with the top line and was rewarded with Huggins’ goal.
“We had some guys that were feeling it so we wanted to get them back out there again,” Murdock said.
With 5:32 left in the game, Janesville’s Ivar Sjolund took a five-minute major for boarding. The play was 4-on-4 for two minutes while the Bears served a penalty, but once the power play commenced, Schachle iced the game by scoring with 1:07 to play on an assist from Michael Spinner. Laudon Poellinger, assisted by Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie, had an empty-netter with 28 seconds to play.
“It’d be nice to be consistent for the full 60 minutes, but at the end of the day, we got two points out of it,” Murdock said. “We’ll take more positives from it than negatives.”
Saturday, Janesville’s Luke Wheeler scored just 1:55 into the game on Bears goalie Danny Fraga, but after that it was all Kenai River.
Thrun and Ritchie scored in the first period, Morgan, Moline and Anchorage’s Max Helgeson scored in the second period, and Morgan, Helgeson and Moline scored in the third.
Fraga picked up his first win in net since Sept. 21. He has played in just six games this year due to the hot goaltending of Pavlisin.
Brown Bears 5, Jets 2
Janesville 1 1 0 — 2
Kenai River 2 0 3 — 5
First period — 1. Kenai River, Moline (Morgan, Schachle), 6:29; 2. Kenai River, Krajnik (Thrun, Ritchie), 15:49; 3. Janesville, McNamara (Wheeler, Michel), 19:52. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Janesville, Schoen (un.), 9:22. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Huggins (Ritchie, Krajnik), 9:22; 6. Kenai River, Schachle (Spinner), pp, 18:53; 7. Kenai River, Poellinger (Lajoie), en, 19:32. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 9:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Power plays — Janesville 0 for 1; Kenai River 1 for 3.
Brown Bears 8, Jets 1
Janesville 1 0 0 — 1
Kenai River 2 3 3 — 8
First period — 1. Janesville, Wheeler (Sweeney), 1:55; 2. Kenai River, Thrun (Krajnik, Hadfield), 11:32; 3. Kenai River, Ritchie (Weeks), 15:13. Penalties — none.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Morgan (Moline, Culleton), 7:28; 5. Kenai River, Moline (Schachle), 11:23; 6. Kenai River, Helgeson (Gutierrez, Valiquette), 18:15. Penalties — none.
Third period — 7. Kenai River, Morgan (Schachle), 2:23; 8. Kenai River, Helgeson (Thrun), pp, 7:46; 9. Kenai River, Moline (Schachle, Morgan), sh, 13:20. Penalties — Janesville 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.