Of the 42 players suited up for Sunday’s 6-3 victory by the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets over the Kenai River Brown Bears, 26 are in their first year playing at the level of the North American Hockey League or higher.
That may explain the topsy-turvy nature of the series, which had Kenai River winning 5-2 on Friday and 4-1 on Saturday before the Bears fell into a 4-0 hole just 43 seconds into the second period Sunday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“This is a heavy league,” said Janesville head coach Corey Leivermann, who had just one player in his final year of junior eligibility playing Sunday. “We’ve got a young team and the young guys are still learning to play with effort and skill consistently.”
Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said consistency also has been a point of focus for the Bears, even for the veterans.
“I still think we’re going through some growing pains,” Murdock said. “Guys are figuring out what it takes to be successful day in and day out in this league.”
Kenai River is 6-3-1-1, good for second place in the Midwest Division. The Jets are 4-7-0-0 and in fifth in the division. The Bears host the Minnesota Magicians on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex
The warning signs of a letdown game were there for Kenai River. The two three-goal margin of victories to feel confident. A Sunday crowd that wouldn’t be as big as a Friday or Saturday. The suspension of Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik, the second-leading scorer on the team, for an incident in Saturday’s game.
The Jets came in having been outscored 20-6 in their last four games. Leivermann said he didn’t have a feel for what he’d get from his young and talented team, which already has five players committed to Division I schools and two that were listed on the NHL Central Scouting list this week.
“I’ve said a lot during the four-game losing streak, so I really didn’t have too much more to say,” Leivermann said. “I think they were just sick of losing. They committed to compete and do the little things.”
Isaac Novak got things started for Janesville 7 minutes, 45 seconds, into the game, then Grant Hindman scored on the power play and Max Klanow scored short-handed to give the Jets a 3-0 lead after the first period.
Kenai River’s Theo Thrun and Stewart Pond each had close-range opportunities ring off the pipe in the period.
“I told them they should feel good to be up 3-0 because it easily could have been 3-2 after the first period,” Leivermann said.
Just 43 seconds into the second period, Janesville’s Nick Nardella scored for the second short-handed goal on the power play.
“It was just missed communication and guys were standing around too much,” Murdock said.
Konner Lundeen got Kenai River on the board with 17:14 to play in the second, but less than two minutes later Jack Rhode scored for Janesville to chase Kenai River goaltender Danny Fraga, who made 16 saves on 21 shots to fall behind 5-1.
“I don’t think we played very well in front of Danny,” Murdock said. “I don’t think Danny played that bad. I think he fought it a little bit.”
In the third period, Novak scored on the power play for Janesville, which was 2 for 4 with the man advantage, for a 6-1 game.
Then Leivermann said his team’s inexperience showed again. Instead of continuing to play solid defense in front of goalie Grant Riley, who would make 34 saves, Leivermann said the Jets started playing selfishly.
Thrun scored on the power play and Nate Thelen added another with 4:03 to play before Leivermann called timeout and chewed out his team.
“Our goaltender was playing good and we’re up 6-1, but suddenly they decided to play selfish hockey and go off and try and score goals,” Leivermann said.
Landon Pavlisin had 15 saves on 16 shots in relief for the Bears.
“Both teams still have guys getting used to junior hockey,” Murdock said. “The guys are making the transition from midget or high school hockey, and from other junior leagues. Everybody can beat everybody in this league.”
Jets 6, Brown Bears 3
Janesville 3 2 1 — 6
Kenai River 0 1 2 — 3
First period — 1. Janesville, Novak (Hindman, Klanow), 7:45; 2. Janesville, Hindman (Bacallo, Dunlap), pp, 17:23; 3. Janesville, Klanow (Hindman, Roepke), sh, 19:53. Penalties — Janesville 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 4. Janesville, Nardella (Hindman, Roepke), sh, 0:43; 5. Kenai River, Lundeen (Thrun, Ritchie), 2:46; 6. Janesville, Rhode (Brown, LaPointe), 4:03. Penalties — Janesville 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 7. Janesville, Novak (Dunlap, Nardella), pp, 13:13; 8. Kenai River, Thrun (McCollum, Valiquette), pp, 13:58; 9. Kenai River, Thelen (Thrun, Poellinger), 15:57. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Janesville 14-12-11—37; Kenai River 12-12-13—37.
Goalies — Janesville, Riley (37 shots, 34 saves); Kenai River, Fraga (21 shots, 16 saves), Pavlisin (16 shots, 15 saves).