The Kenai River Brown Bears won one period on a Friday night where they badly needed to win the whole game, and lost one period Saturday night that massively damaged their playoff hopes.
The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues capped a three-game weekend sweep over the Brown Bears with a 3-1 Friday victory and a 2-1 Saturday win, helping to stretch out their advantage in the race for the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.
The Jr. Blues improved to 18-15-2-1, good for 39 points and an 11-point advantage on the Bears (12-22-2-2).
Springfield lit the lamp twice in an 89-second span in the second period Saturday, getting scoring strikes from Aaron Swanson and Nikita Kozyrev that provided a lead enough to withstand the Bears’ efforts in the third period.
Johan Bok cut the deficit in half with a short-handed goal just 11 seconds from the end, which ultimately proved to be too late.
Springfield has now won six of seven games, while the Brown Bears have dropped six straight, including the first five of the current homestand.
“I thought our guys came out flying in the first and second period,” said Springfield head coach Tyler Rennette, who was back on the bench Friday after missing Thursday’s game with an illness. “Then in the third, they thought it would be easy and they took it to us for 20 minutes.”
The Bears went 0 for 6 on the power play in Saturday’s clash as Springfield goalie Janis Voris stood tall in net. Voris finished the night with 23 saves on 24 shots. Kenai River’s Gavin Enright stopped 17 of 19.
The Bears came out fast with an 11-4 shots advantage but couldn’t figure Voris out. The Jr. Blues responded with 10 shots on goal in the second period with two slipping by Enright.
In Friday’s contest, the Jr. Blues went up 3-0 and outshot Kenai River 17-8 in the first period en route to a 36-27 advantage for the game, and took control by spending long periods in the Brown Bears’ defensive zone.
“We work on O zone a lot,” Rennette said. “We tell the guys that on the big sheet here, with the extra space, they have an extra second to make the shot or pass.”
Midway through the first period, Kenai River’s defense finally cracked under all that pressure. With 11 minutes, 58 seconds, left in the first period, Sam Sterne got to a dangerous spot in the slot and scored.
Just over a minute later, after a long period in Kenai River’s zone, Nikita Kozyrev made it 2-0.
“You can’t spot them a 2-0 lead in a must-win game,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “At the same time, I thought we had opportunities to come back.”
When the Bears did get any daylight in the first two periods, Voris shut them down. Rennette said the goalie was picked up after the break and has been lights out when he has played.
“He made the big saves when he had to,” the coach said.
In the second period, the Bears picked up the pace a little but the Jr. Blues had three power plays to Kenai River’s one.
With 6:31 to play in the period, Springfield again got the puck to the center of the ice with traffic in front of the net. Aaron Swanson tipped in a Brandon Puricelli shot for a 3-0 cushion.
Just 6:39 into the third period, Markuss Komuls, assisted by Sebastian Frantz and Andy Walker, scored on the power play to cut the gap to two. The Bears first pulled the goalie with 2:19 to play in the game, but could get no closer than two.
“We’re not right right now,” Petrich said. “We’re just not us and I don’t know what the missing link is. I’m going to spend all night and all morning trying to figure it out.”
Voris made 26 saves, while Gavin Enright had 33 for the Bears.
Petrich lauded the community’s support again.
Bears notes: Wasilla’s Tanner Schachle, who played for the Brown Bears in the 2014-15 season, scored his first career goal for the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves in Saturday’s 6-3 loss at Alabama Huntsville. Schachle is the brother of current Brown Bears forward Porter Schachle. Porter is not playing due to an upper body injury.
Jr. Blues 2, Brown Bears 1
Springfield 0 2 0 —2
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Springfield 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Springfield, Swanson (Puricelli, Jensen), 4:59; 2. Springfield, Kozyrev (Brainin), 6:28. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Bok (Krajnik, Walker), SH, 19:49. Penalties — Springfield 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 4-10-5—19; Kenai River 11-6-7—24.
Goalies — Springfield, Voris (24 shots, 23 saves); Kenai River, Enright (19 shots, 17 saves).
Power plays — Springfield 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 6.
Jr. Blues 3, Brown Bears 1
Springfield 2 1 0 — 3
Kenai River 0 0 1 — 1
First period — 1. Springfield, Sterne (Schmidling, Puricelli), 8:02; 2. Springfield, Kozyrev (Brainin, Techel), 9:05. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Springfield, Swanson (Puricelli, Schmidling), 13:29. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Komuls (Frantz, A. Walker), pp, 6:39. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 17-11-8—36; Kenai River 8-6-13—27.
Goalies — Springfield, Voris (27 shots, 26 saves); Kenai River, Enright (36 shots, 33 saves).