As much as the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues are enjoying their time in Alaska, they clearly do not want to come back for the playoffs.
The Jr. Blues finished their trip to Alaska at 4-1 by sweeping a three-game North American Hockey League series from the Kenai River Brown Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Springfield completed the sweep with a 6-2 win Friday and 2-1 win Saturday.
Springfield, which officially clinched a spot in the playoffs Friday, is in a battle with the Minnesota Magicians for third place in the Midwest Division. The third place team will face the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in the first round of the playoffs, no picnic because the Jets are fourth in the league in points.
But the fourth-place team must face the league’s top team, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, a prospect made all the more daunting by having to get on a plane rather than a bus to play the series.
Although the Jr. Blues are 2-2 against the Ice Dogs this season and handed Fairbanks its first loss in regulation in 36 games March 9 in Fairbanks, Springfield coach Tyler Rennette said the choice is clear.
“That’s a really, really good team,” he said of Fairbanks. “We don’t want to travel all the way back up here to see them again.”
The Jr. Blues showed it this weekend by improving to 4-2 this season against the Bears and 28-21-5-1 overall, which puts Springfield three points up on the Magicians. The Jr. Blues have five games left, including tonight’s 7:30 p.m. tilt against the Brown Bears. The Magicians have seven games remaining.
Kenai River lost for an ninth straight time and fell to 15-37-1-2, still last in the Midwest Division. The Bears finished their home slate, but face Fairbanks 7:30 p.m. Friday at the MTA Events Center in Palmer and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the O’Malley Ice Center in Anchorage..
Friday, Springfield took command early, with Brandon Puricelli and Max Brainin scoring in the first six minutes of the game.
“We came out flat,” Brown Bears assistant coach Nick Sova said. “We didn’t want to play and they did.”
Bears head coach Josh Petrich subbed out goalie Kevin Lake for Gavin Enright. Kenai River’s Carter Wade and Springfield’s Fletcher Fineman fought just 15 seconds after the Bears went down 2-0.
But Springfield still went up 3-0 when Nick Schultze scored with 10:51 left in the first, although Alex Klekotka pulled it back to 3-1 several minutes later.
The second period saw no scoring, though the Bears did outshoot the Jr. Blues 8-3 on the way to a 31-19 advantage for the game.
“They took it to us in the second and third periods a bit,” Rennette said. “That’s a team that didn’t quit.”
With the score at 3-1, the first goal of the third period figured to be huge, and Puricelli buried his second goal of the game just 0:49 into the period. Rennette said Puricelli came back from the United States Hockey League after Christmas. Puricelli wasn’t getting much playing time there, but he has worked off the rust and Rennette said the forward is getting on a roll just in time for the playoffs.
“Whenever we didn’t play, they took advantage and scored,” Sova said.
Fabio Hollenstein scored on the power play with 11:44 remaining for a 5-1 lead, then Petrich pulled the goalie with six minutes left.
Sova said the move was made to try and provide energy. Things turned out even when Max Brainin got an empty-net goal for the Jr. Blues and Filip Karlsson got a power-play goal for the Bears.
Rennette said goalie Jurja Ovecka had several big saves among his 29, while Enright stopped 13 and Lake let in both his shots.
Sova said he was disappointed the Bears couldn’t give the thick crowd more to cheer about.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “We really appreciate how they come out and support us.”
Saturday, Springfield went up 1-0 in the first period on a Giovanni Carabelli goal and 2-0 in the second period on a Puricelli strike.
With 11:30 left in the game, Zach Krajnik scored for a 2-1 game. The Bears outshot the Jr. Blues 13-3 in the final period en route to a 33-30 advantage for the game but couldn’t find the equalizer.
Evan Fear had 32 saves for Springfield while Enright stopped 28 for the Bears.
Jr. Blues 6, Brown Bears 2
Springfield 3 0 3 — 6
Kenai River 1 0 1 — 2
First period — 1. Springfield, Puricelli (Smyth, Mickelson), 5:28; 2. Springfield, Brainin (Osborne, Sterne), 6:00; 3. Springfield, Schultzke (Brainin, DenBeste), 9:09; 4. Kenai River, Klekotka (Komuls, Krajnik), 11:06. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 15:00; Kenai River 2 for 15:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Puricelli (Hollenstein, Smyth), 0:49; 6. Springfield, Hollenstein (Steward, Kozyrev), pp, 8:16; 7. Springfield, Brainin (DenBeste), en, 14:32; 8. Kenai River, Karlsson (Kaplan, Guillemain), pp, 18:47. Penalties — Springfield 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 9-3-7—19; Kenai River 8-8-15—31.
Goalies — Springfield, Ovecka (31 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Lake (2 shots, 0 saves), Enright (16 shots, 13 saves).
Power plays — Springfield 1 for 2; Kenai River 1 for 2.
Jr. Blues 2, Brown Bears 1
Springfield 1 1 0 — 2
Kenai River 0 0 1 — 1
First period — 1. Springfield, Carabelli (Stewart, Walter), 8:09. Penalties — Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Springfield, Puricelli (Kozyrev, Hollenstein), 17:28. Penalties — Springfield 3 for 8:00; Kenai River 5 for 12:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Krajnik (S. McDonald, Rosa), 8:30. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Springfield 12-15-3—30; Kenai River 15-5-13—33.
Goalies — Springfield, Fear (33 shots, 32 saves); Kenai River, Enright (30 shots, 28 saves).