For the second time all season, the Kenai River Brown Bears scored the first goal of the game Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Not coincidentally, for the second time all season, the Bears picked up a win.
Kenai River topped the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel 4-2 in North American Hockey League play Friday. Saturday, the Steel scored the first three goals of the game to win 3-1 and take the series 3-2. Chippewa is now 8-8-0-0, while the Bears are 2-11-0-0.
“Chasing the game is hard, right?” Kenai River head coach Josh Dubinsky said after Friday’s game. “When you’re spotting other teams the lead, it can be difficult to come back.
“Teams in this league are good and solid defensively. You know as soon as you grab the lead you can build from there and just kind of play defense.”
After losing the home opener 6-2 to the Steel on Thursday, Sean Henry of the Brown Bears got the crowd energy flowing early when he fought Joseph Grainda of the Steel.
“That’s a huge momentum shift and gets the boys going and gets the crowd going,” Brown Bears captain Brendan Hill said.
Kenai River took advantage by scoring the only goals of the first period. Caden Triggs scored on assists from Tyler Pfister and Bryce Monrean, and Carter Green scored with help from Cole Dubicki and Logan Kroyman.
Green, a defenseman, scored his first NAHL goal in his 62nd game with the Brown Bears.
“The fight you alluded to gave us a little bit of momentum and got the crowd into it, and that was able to propel us to probably our best period in a long time,” Dubinsky said.
Dubinsky liked the way his team came out in the second, but Chippewa earned a power play and capitalized on a Braden Lindstrom strike, appearing to snatch momentum in the process with 13:28 left in the second.
Kenai River’s Ryan Finch, on assists from Dylan Evans and Henry, got that momentum back two minutes later with his first goal in his seventh game with the Bears.
“He’s a little guy that buzzes around and works hard and competes,” Dubinsky said of Finch, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound forward. “He did everything that we needed him to do tonight.”
Chippewa’s Joe Kelly cut the lead to 4-3 headed for the third period.
In the third, the Bears, despite their record, looked like a team experienced at closing out close wins.
“Just blocking shots, bearing down in the zone and getting pucks out — that’s a huge part of shutting teams down in the end,” Hill said. “Gramm McCormack had great blocked shots in there.”
Anything the defense let through, Kenai River goalie Tommy Aitken pushed aside. Aitken had 25 saves, while Levi Gho stopped 17 for the Steel.
“What he showed tonight is exactly what we knew we were getting when we traded for him,” Dubinsky said of Aitken. “He’s a guy that’s had a lot of success in this league, and he was able to help us to a victory tonight.”
David Vieten, assisted by Triggs and Caleb Huffman, closed the victory with an empty-net goal with 40 seconds left.
“It’s a big ladder to climb, but I believe in every single one of them in the locker room,” Hill said. “As long as we’re all helping each other and picking each other up, at the end of the day, we’re going to like where we’re at in a couple of weeks.”
Saturday, Ethan Benz scored in the first period, Lindstrom scored in the second period and Grainda scored 51 seconds into the third period for a 3-0 lead. Two of those goals came on the power play as the Steel finished 2 for 3 with the extra man, while Kenai River was 0 for 3.
Dubicki, assisted by McCormack, scored with 11:46 to play, but the Bears got no closer despite outshooting the Steel 20-2 in the final 20 minutes.
Aitken made 21 saves, while Croix Kochendorfer stopped 40 for the Steel.
Editor’s note: This story corrects the name of the Saturday goalie for the Steel.
Brown Bears 4, Steel 2
Chippewa 0 2 0 —2
Kenai River 2 1 1 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Triggs (Pfister, Monrean), 6:11; 2. Kenai River, Green (Dubicki, Kroyman), 12:34. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 15:00; Kenai River 3 for 17:00.
Second period — 3. Chippewa, Lindstrom (Frandina, Brown), pp, 6:32; 4. Kenai River, Finch (Evans, Henry), 8:29; 5. Chippewa, Kelly (Tanos, Lindstrom), 15:55. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Vieten (Triggs, Huffman), 19:20. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 4-10-13—27; Kenai River 7-8-6—21.
Goalies — Chippewa, Gho (20 shots, 17 saves); Kenai River, Aitken (27 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Chippewa 1 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 1.
Steel 3, Brown Bears 1
Chippewa 1 1 1 —3
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
First period — 1. Chippewa, Benz (Brown, Frandina), pp, 16:37. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Chippewa, Lindstrom (Lewis), 13:11. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Chippewa, Grainda (un.), pp, 0:51; 4. Kenai River, Dubicki (un.), 11:46. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 14-8-2—24; Kenai River 12-9-20—41.
Goalies — Chippewa, Kochendorfer (41 shots, 40 saves); Kenai River, Aitken (24 shots, 21 saves).