The Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets 4-3 on Saturday at the Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, to win the first playoff series in franchise history.
The Bears started play in the North American Hockey League in the 2007-08 season and are making their seventh playoff appearance.
“I know everybody on the team was well aware of that going into this series,” interim head coach Josh Dubinsky said. “That was a big goal and to accomplish it is huge.”
Kenai River, No. 4 out of the Midwest Division, won the first two games in top-seeded Janesville before losing 6-1 in Blaine on Friday and clinching the best-of-five series Saturday. The Blaine games were home games for the Brown Bears because they moved hockey operations to the Midwest for the playoffs.
The Bears will now face the No. 3 Minnesota Magicians in the Midwest Division finals. The Magicians swept the No. 2 Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the first round. The Bears went 3-6-1-0 against the Magicians this season, but were 3-1-1 in the final five games against Minnesota.
“We struggled with them early in the year, but we were able to start figuring it out toward the end,” Dubinsky said.
Kenai River gets its landmark series victory at the end of a difficult season. The Bears played just four games before pausing their season Nov. 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the team started up again Jan. 2, the Bears stuffed a lot of games into a short period in order to try to get back to Alaska. Kenai River did not get up to Alaska until April 23, playing eight games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and two in Fairbanks before moving playoff operations to the Midwest.
On top of all that, former head coach Kevin Murdock resigned in early May with just four games remaining in the regular season.
A measure of just how long the season has been for the Bears comes from the fact that their season will now overlap that of the Peninsula Oilers, who begin play at home Saturday.
“It’s been a crazy, crazy year,” Dubinsky said. “We’ve dealt with so much adversity together. We’ve been able to use that as fuel.
“I don’t think any team in the league has had quite as difficult of a year as we have, and we’re able to thrive on that right now.”
Saturday, Charlie Schoen and Justin Thompson scored for the Jets to start the game, but Brandon McNamara cut the lead to 2-1 with 10:41 to play in the first period. Thompson lit the lamp again to make it 3-1 headed to the second.
“We played better in the first than what the score indicated,” Dubinsky said.
Anchorage’s Max Helgeson scored on the power play to make it 3-2 headed to the third.
“We just played consistent and started chipping away at the lead,” Dubinsky said.
With 10:05 to play, Lucas Wahlin tied things up for the Bears. Then with 3:34 left, Peter Morgan potted the game-winner on assists from Carter Green and Helgeson.
Dubinsky said Green threw the puck at the net and Morgan was able to bury the rebound.
“After we took the lead, we hunkered down and the defense didn’t give up chances,” Dubinsky said.
Owen Millward stopped 29 for Janesville, while Luke Pavicich saved 23 for the Bears.
“He let in three in the first and he may want one of those back,” Dubinsky said of Pavicich. “To shut the door after that is pretty impressive.”
Friday, Dubinsky said Janesville came out strong.
“I think they just played more desperate than we did,” Dubinsky said. “They knew their season was on the line. As much as we stressed the importance of finishing things off tonight, it’s natural to take your foot off the gas.”
Just over nine minutes into the game, Theo Thrun put the Brown Bears up 1-0, but after that it was all Janesville.
“We came out flat to start the game, even though we got that first one to go up 1-0,” Dubinsky said. “We were fortunate to come out of the first down by a goal.”
Tommy Middleton and Matthew Romer made it 2-1 by the end of the first period, Nick Leyer and Middleton scored in the second period, and Middleton and Leyer scored in the third period.
Millward stopped 13 for the Jets, while Pavicich saved 31 for the Bears.
The series schedule against the Magicians has not been announced yet.
Jets 6, Brown Bears 1
Janesville 2 2 2 —6
Kenai River 1 0 0 —1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Thrun (Winters, Szubert), 9:01; 2. Janesville, Middleton (Schoen), pp, 17:35; 3. Janesville, Romer (Ott, Leyer), 19:52. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Janesville, Leyer (Ott, Middleton), pp, 2:38; 5. Janesville, Middleton (Ott, Schoen), pp, 17:19. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 6. Janesville, Middleton (Thompson, Casperson), 10:10; 7. Janesville, Leyer (Ott, Romer), 16:47. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Janesville 13-11-13—37; Kenai River 6-4-4—14.
Goalies — Janesville, Millward (14 shots, 13 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (37 shots, 31 saves).
Power plays — Janesville 3 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 4.
Brown Bears 4, Jets 3
Janesville 3 0 0 —3
Kenai River 1 1 2 —4
First period — 1. Janesville, Schoen (un.), 7:15; 2. Janesville, Thompson (Schoen), 8:52; 3. Kenai River, McNamara (Lajoie, Helgeson), 9:19; 4. Janesville, Thompson (Destefani, Itagaki), 17:12. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 5. Kenai River, Helgeson (Winters, Wahlin), 5:38. Penalties — Janesville 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Wahlin (Dodge, Reid), 9:55; 7. Kenai River, Morgan (Green, Helgeson), 16:26. Penalties — Janesville 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Janesville 11-9-6—26; Kenai River 9-15-9—33.
Goalies — Janesville, Millward (33 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Pavicich (26 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Janesville 0 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 6.