The Kenai River Brown Bears returned from their 13-day holiday break to forge a weekend split in Janesville, Wisconsin, beating the North American Hockey League division opponent Jets 5-4 on Friday before losing 3-2 on Saturday.
It was a promising sign of things to come in 2019 for Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich.
“It’s tough for these kids to get good ice and keep pace,” Petrich said. “For us to come out and get the jump (on Friday) is big … At the end of the day, we got the two points. To end up with two points in a tough building, you couldn’t ask for more.”
The Brown Bears are 3-2-0-1 against the Jets this year, including a 3-1 record in Janesville’s own building, which Petrich said is a tough place to win at.
“It has been six playoff hockey games this year against them,” he said. “To beat them in their building is a big deal.”
In Friday’s tilt, a power play goal by Alex Klekotka with under three minutes left pushed the Bears to a 5-4 victory.
Saturday, Klekotka again provided the late drama, but it wasn’t enough to muster a win for a weekend sweep. Klekotka cut the Jets lead to 3-2 with 17:52 to play in the final period, but the Bears missed several late chances to tie it, including a “grade-A” chance with about 20 seconds left, according to Petrich.
“We dug ourselves a hole, but we outchanced them and couldn’t get the right bounce,” he said. “I’m excited for the second half of the year.”
Petrich said the two-week break did wonders for the banged-up Bears, who played 11 games in 22 days from Nov. 23 to Dec. 15.
“Those 11 games are gruesome on the body,” Petrich said. “Eleven games in three weeks is absolutely crazy.”
The Brown Bears (12-17-2-2) sit fourth in the NAHL Midwest Division with 28 points, 10 behind third-place Fairbanks, which lost Saturday night. The Minnesota Magicians lead the division with 44 points.
An early tripping call on Kenai River hurt the team’s chances Saturday, as the Jets opened the scoring 4:25 into the game on a power play goal by Jack Vincent, then tallied another one just 1:17 later to make it 2-0 Janesville.
Sebastian Frantz scored on the power play for Kenai River midway through the second period to cut the gap to 2-1, but the Jets answered back a few minutes later to build the edge to 3-1.
Two minutes into the third period, Klekotka struck for the third time in two games, but the Bears couldn’t find the answer to tying it, even while outshooting Janesville 10 to 3 in the period.
In Friday’s game, Kenai River’s Sutton McDonald and Trey LeBarge each lit the lamp twice to lead the Brown Bears, who snapped a four-game losing skid, their first win since Dec. 6 against the Minnesota Magicians, also on the road.
Klekotka’s go-ahead goal came shortly after Janesville’s Justin Engelkes was called for tripping with 3:06 left in the game, the Jets’ first penalty of the night. The Brown Bears made the Jets pay with the go-ahead goal by Klekotka on the power play with 2:52 remaining.
“He just’s an absolute shooter,” Petrich said about Klekotka. “He had pucks last night that I wanted him to shoot, and I told him, ‘You’re a shooter, so shoot it. Tonight, that’s why.
“I expect him to have a big second half.”
LeBarge notched his first two goals of the season early, the first coming just 47 seconds in and the second at the 3:22 mark of the first. Markus Komuls assisted on both goals to up his season tally to 15, tied for second on the team.
The Bears added LeBarge to the roster Dec. 7 and the new skater has thus far recorded four points in six games with Kenai River. Petrich said the acquisition of LeBarge along with another skater in Sebastian Frantz (acquired Dec. 14) will hopefully add some scoring punch to the Bears’ lackluster first half of the season.
“We’re really high on (LeBarge) and we’re excited what he’s going to do,” Petrich said. “It’s good for him to get those early in his time with us.”
The Jets scored three times in the second period, including two late goals to tie things up at 3-all. Carter Hottmann tallied his first score of the season with 7:45 left in the second to cut the Bears lead to 3-2, then Jordon Halverson found the net with 3:03 left to knot it up.
McDonald put Kenai River up again with a quick strike 46 seconds into the third period, but Janesville responded at the 7:35 mark with another one by Hottmann to even it all again, setting up the late drama for the Bears.
Dennis Westergard got the win in goal for Kenai River by stopping 19 of 23 shots. The Bears made life difficult for the Jets’ Cole Brady, who was 16 for 21 in goal.
The Bears will receive some rest before returning to action with a nine-game homestand beginning Jan. 11 against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel. The weekend will be U.S. Army Night on both nights.
Jets 3, Brown Bears 2
Kenai River 0 1 1 —2
Janesville 2 1 0 —3
First period — 1. Janesville, Vincent (Bargholtz, Engelkes), PP, 4:25; 2. Janesville, MacLaren (Hanewall, Olson), 5:42. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Janesville 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Frantz (White, Walker), PP, 7:23; 4. Janesville, Koss (Ommen), 10:12. Penalties — 3 for 6:00; Janesville 5 for 36:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Klekotka (McDonald), 2:02. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Janesville 2 for 4:00.
Goalies — Kenai River, Enright (20 shots, 17 saves); Janesville, Metcalf (26 shots, 24 saves).
Shots on goal — Kenai River 10-15-10—35; Janesville 11-9-3—23.
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 6; Janesville 1 for 4.
Brown Bears 5, Jets 4
Kenai River 2 1 2 —5
Janesville 0 3 1 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, LeBarge (Spethmann, Komuls), :47; 2. Kenai River, LeBarge (Komuls, Lajoie), 3:22. Penalties — none.
Second period — 3. Janesville, Bargholtz (Driscoll, Dosek), 4:33; 4. Kenai River, McDonald (Moline, Klekotka), 11:09; 5. Janesville, Hottman (Middleton, Driscoll), 12:15; 6. Janesville, Halverson (Nicholas, Nardella), 16:57. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 7. Kenai River, McDonald (Klekotka, Moline), :46; 8. Janesville, Hottmann (Middleton, Dosek), 7:35; 9. Kenai River, Klekotka (Boucher, Krajnik), PP, 17:08. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Janesville 2 for 12:00.
Goalies — Kenai River, Westergard (23 shots, 19 saves); Janesville, Brady (21 shots, 16 saves).
Shots on goal — Kenai River 12-7-2—21; Janesville 8-14-1—23.
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 1; Janesville 0 for 3.