The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues lost not only a 2020-21 season to the coronavirus pandemic, but a team as well.
North American Hockey League teams that did not play last season lost rights to their players so they could go play with another team.
So what did Springfield head coach Tyler Rennette do all of last season?
“Just recruited,” he said. “We had to replace an entire team.”
Looks like Rennette did a pretty good job.
The Jr. Blues defeated the Kenai River Brown Bears 5-3 on Friday and 7-4 on Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to move into first place in the Midwest Division. Springfield is 15-8-0-1, while the Bears are in last place at 4-18-0-0.
With fans getting free entry to Friday’s game thanks to Hilcorp with the donation of two nonperishable food items to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, 2,138 showed up to cheer the home team. Brown Bears general manager Chris Hedlund said 3,800 pounds of food were gathered.
The Bears are in the midst of a coaching transition. The team announced in a press release Friday that the team has parted ways with former head coach Josh Dubinsky, who was not on the bench for a 4-2 Thursday victory over Springfield. Assistant coach Taylor Shaw is remaining with the team as the Bears conduct a search for a new head coach.
“I think the big message has been, ‘It’s business as usual,’” Shaw said. “The end goal hasn’t changed for them, right? They’re still trying to get commitments right now. And we’re trying to win hockey games.”
Rennette said his team learned from Thursday’s loss to Kenai River.
“I think we just competed a little bit harder,” he said. “I mean, it’s a hard working team down the hall. They’re probably one of the hardest working teams we’ve played against.
“So we came in last night and thought it might be a little easy and tried to rely on our skill alone. But I think tonight the compete level went up and it kind of showed.”
Friday, Zach Bade put the Jr. Blues up 1-0 midway through the first period, but the compete level really showed when Kenai River started a power play with 7:41 left in the first period. The Bears had the puck in the zone the full two minutes and hit the crossbar, but goalie Ethan Roberts and the defense maintained the lead.
“The goalie made a couple big saves there when he was down and out, which kept us in it,” Rennette said.
Roberts stopped a couple of golden Kenai River opportunities early in the second before Connor Smith and Joey Dosan scored 39 seconds apart midway through the period for a 3-0 lead.
“When we get good looks against a good team, we need to find a way to score because, unfortunately, when we give them good opportunities, they’re going to make us pay,” Shaw said.
With 5:40 left in the second period, Cole Dubicki gave the Bears life with a short-handed goal.
Just 7 seconds into the third period, the Bears went on the power play. Caden Triggs scored just 15 seconds into the power play to cut the lead to 3-2.
With the big crowd behind the Bears, momentum for the home team failed to materialize.
“I think they stayed on an even keel,” Rinnette said of his team. “I think they knew the crowd was coming. There’s been talk about it since we got into town and it kind of makes it exciting for both teams, too.”
The Bears got away with a few sloppy plays in their own end, but with 15:47 left in the game, Springfield’s Leo Bacallao capitalized on a turnover for a score. Then with 7:52 to play, Michael Valdez scored on the power play for a 5-2 lead.
“Unfortunately, we were making some soft plays there on the ice and didn’t capitalize on getting pucks deep or moving the puck north when we needed to,” Shaw said.
Kenai River’s David Vieten scored on the power play with 4:08 to play for a 5-3 game, but that deficit was too much to overcome.
Roberts stopped 25 for the Jr. Blues, while Bryant Marks had 17 saves for the Bears.
Saturday, Vieten picked up where he left off Friday night by scoring just 2:02 into the game on the power play.
Springfield then quickly moved to wrap up the game, scoring six straight goals before two minutes were gone in the second period. Carson Jones had two goals, while Valdez, Hagen Moe, Noah Marino and Will Magnuson added tallies.
Ryan Finch scored in the second period for Kenai River, but Cole Schneider answered as the Bears trailed 7-2 after three periods.
Caden Triggs and Luke Helgeson scored in the third period for Kenai River.
Roberts stopped 40 in the victory. For Kenai River, Tommy Aitken stopped 12 of 16 shots before Marks came on to stop 18 of 21 shots.
Kenai River hosts the Anchorage Wolverines on Dec. 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex.
Jr. Blues 5, Brown Bears 3
Springfield 1 2 2 —5
Kenai River 0 1 2 —3
First period — 1. Springfield, Bade (Riva), 10:05. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Springfield, Smith (Moe), 8:10; 3. Springfield, Dosan (Bacallao), pp, 8:49; 4. Kenai River, Dubicki (Anderson), sh, 14:20. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Triggs (Marx Noren, Dubicki), pp, 0:22; 6. Springfield, Bacallao (Valdez, Panisa), 4:13; 7. Springfield, Valdez (Shewchuk, Schneider), pp, 12:08; 8. Kenai River, Vieten (Marx Noren, Dubicki), pp, 15:52. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 8-10-4—22; Kenai River 11-7-10—28.
Goalies — Springfield, Roberts (28 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Marks (22 shots, 17 saves).
Jr. Blues 7, Brown Bears 4
Springfield 5 2 0 —7
Kenai River 1 1 2 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Vieten (Dubicki, Marx Noren), pp, 2:02; 2. Springfield, Jones (Dosan, Schneider), 6:19; 3. Springfield, Valdez (Schneider, Marino), 6:56; 4. Springfield, Moe (Smith, Panisa), 10:14; 5. Springfield, Marino (Jones, Schneider), 12:31; 6. Springfield, Magnuson (Moe), 17:00. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 7. Springfield, Jones (Bacallao), pp, 1:56; 8. Kenai River, Finch (Green, Lockwood), 9:22; 9. Springfield, Schneider (Jones, Dosan), 19:04. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 10. Kenai River, Triggs (Monrean, Dubicki), 16:49; 11. Kenai River, Helgeson (Evans), 17:57.
Shots on goal — Springfield 17-12-8—37; Kenai River 16-13-15—44.