The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues held on for a gritty 3-2 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Saturday night, the Blues hunkered down to pick up another win, this time doing so in come-from-behind fashion with another 3-2 win.
“We’ll take it,” said Blues coach Tony Zasowski after Saturday’s contest. “It wasn’t pretty, and they had us on the ropes.”
Friday, Zasowski said 12 of his 23 players have had a 24- to 48-hour flu this week. Four players couldn’t even leave the hotel Friday, meaning Springfield only dressed 18 of a possible 20.
“It was a gutsy win for our guys,” Zasowski said. “It was a lot of work.
“Kenai worked hard for 60 minutes and kept coming back.”
The Blues improved to 10-11-0-1 and moved into sole possession of fourth place in the Midwest Division. The Bears remained in last in the division at 1-16-2-0.
Kenai River’s problem remained scoring in five-on-five play. In 19 games, the Bears now have 11 goals during five-on-five action.
The Bears had a three-on-none near the end of the first period Friday and didn’t hit the net. The same thing happened on an open chance right in front of the net near the end of the second period.
“Winning teams bury those chances,” said Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton, who was serving a one-game suspension Friday.
The Blues took a 1-0 lead in the first period on a power-play goal by Ryan Leibold.
Springfield outshot the Bears 13-7 in the first but Kenai River came back to win the shot count for the game 31-30.
Worlton said the team continued its string of slow starts.
“The first period cost us again,” he said.
Just 2:33 into the second period, Kenai River appeared to tie the game when Connor Nilson threw the puck at the net from beyond the blue line and it skipped past goalie Devin Cooley.
But a Bears player was ruled offside on the play, negating the goal. Worlton said the call was correct.
Then, five minutes into the second, the Bears were trying to clear the puck up the boards, but the puck hit a seam in the glass at midice kicked sideways, leading to a chance that Ricards Bernhards converted for a 2-0 lead.
The Blues hadn’t taken a penalty to that point, but had three before the end of the second.
“We got undisciplined and it let them back in the game,” Zasowski said.
Luke Radetic, who played for Springfield last season, made it 2-1 on a five-on-three, power-play goal assisted by Jonathan Marzec and Christopher Lipe with 2:57 left in the period.
The Bears turned up the heat in the third period, outshooting Springfield 13-6, but the short bench of the Blues was able to hang on due to an opportunistic offense, team defense and solid goaltending.
For starters, Springfield cashed in its good scoring opportunity in the period. With 10:48 to play, Matt Cassidy tapped in a goal.
But David Kaplan, assisted by Radetic and Nilson, made it 3-2 from a tough angle with 5:34 left.
But the Blues used shot-blocking and active sticks to keep most shots on the outside for Cooley.
Zasowski said the only veteran defenseman on the team is former Brown Bears player Jack Nickels, but the rest of the players are improving.
“For the last 10 games, the thing that has been helping us is good team defense,” he said.
The Bears earned a power play with 4:46 left and had shots from good spaces on the ice but too often missed the net and saw the puck spin out of the zone.
“The positive thing is they are working hard and are getting chances,” Worlton said. “We’re not capitalizing on those chances.
“We have to start, or we’ll keep losing.”
Robbie Goor had 27 saves for the Bears, while Cooley stopped 29 for the Blues.
The Bears staked out a 2-0 lead Saturday in the second period, getting goals from Tyler Rock and Luke Radetic, but the lead wouldn’t last.
A power-play strike from Matt Cassidy midway through the second frame closed the lead to one, and with 10:49 to play in the third, Cassidy tied it up, taking the puck from a teammate behind the net and slipping it by Bailey Seagraves and into the upper shelf netting off his knees.
As the clock wound down in the third period, both teams had chances to score with the puck racing across the crease several times. Seagraves wowed the home crowd with a fearless glove save with 4:12 left.
With 54.2 seconds to go, the dam broke. Ryan Leibold raced up the ice from the left wing and delivered a wrist shot into the netting to put Springfield ahead for the first time all night.
“I thought they deserved better than this,” Worlton said of Kenai River. “Our guys just don’t quit. (Springfield) just capitalized on things way better.”
Worlton stressed that he was pleased with the effort by his squad, but the puck just did not bounce their way.
“They played hard, got five-on-five goals, and they responded to what we told them,” he said. “We told them to play the game that got them here.”
Jr. Blues 3, Brown Bears 2
Springfield 0 1 2 —3
Kenai River 0 2 0 —2
First period — No scoring. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Kenai River, Rock (Carroll, Butcher), 1:53; 2. Kenai River, Radetic (Mezera), PP, 6:48; 3. Springfield, Cassidy (Hollenstein, Hernhards), PP, 10:33. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Springfield 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Springfield, Cassidy (Bernhards), 9:11; 5. Springfield, Leibold (Cassidy), 19:06. Penalties — none.
Jr. Blues 3, Brown Bears 2
Springfield 1 1 1 —3
Kenai River 0 1 1 —2
First period — 1. Springfield, Leibold (Summers, Nickels), pp, 9:03. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Springfield, Bernhards (Cassidy, Hollenstein), 5:00; 3. Kenai River, Radetic (Marzec, Lipe), pp, 17:03. Penalties — Springfield 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Springfield, Cassidy (Long, Brown), 9:12; 5. Kenai River, Kaplan (Radetic, Nilson), 14:26. Penalties — Springfield 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Springfield 13-11-6—30; Kenai River 7-11-13—31.
Goalies — Springfield, Cooley (31 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Goor (29 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Springfield 1 for 3; Kenai River 1 for 4.