The happy homecoming continues for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) coach Tom Kowal.
Kowal, who was born and raised in Anchorage, pulled three points out of Fairbanks last weekend, then got a sweep over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Knights won 4-3 in overtime Friday and 2-0 on Saturday.
“I just told my team they can’t embarrass me up here,” said Kowal, who attended East High, played a year for the University of Alaska Anchorage and was happy to have his dad, former Anchorage Aces assistant Dan, as a guest coach at one of his Alaska practices.
Friday’s contest meant nothing for the playoff picture. The Bears are now 4-49-4, ticketed for last place in the North American Hockey League, while the Knights (22-27-9) will be the No. 4 seed out of the East Division.
But both coaches definitely had things they wanted to accomplish, and it showed with the tense hockey that riled up the crowd of 472 after the Bears tied up the game midway through the third period.
For Brown Bears coach Jeff Worlton, the game was a mixed bag.
The coach thought the game was there for the taking, but that his team did not play simple hockey, leading to costly turnovers.
On the flip side, Kenai River came back from a 3-0 deficit to get a point.
“They’re starting to believe they can win,” said Worlton, whose team got a point in two straight games for the first time this season. “It’s fun to watch the growth.
“We’re setting ourselves up for a good year next year.”
Meanwhile, Kowal is using the trip to build team unity for the playoffs and to work on special teams.
“Special teams is half the game in this league,” he said.
The Knights prevailed because they dominated that half of the game, going 1 for 6 on the power play and holding Kenai River to 0 for 5 with one short-handed goal.
In the first period, the Brown Bears won the shot count 12-3 but lost the goal count 1-0 when a turnover on the power play led to a short-handed goal by Tanner Bennett.
The Knights went up 2-0 in the second on a power-play goal by Blake Busch, then Carson Knop turned a turnover in the Kenai River defensive zone into a 3-0 lead with 9 minutes, 56 seconds, left in the second period.
At this point, Worlton said the team’s growing confidence showed.
“We got back to the basics and kept working hard,” the coach said.
Tommy Bowe, of Homer, started the comeback with a hard check that created a turnover and an odd-man rush. Bowe, who appeared in 12 games for the Knights this year, followed up that rush and made it 3-1 on the rebound.
In the third period, Collin Appleton and Evan Butcher got the Bears level on a pair of plays that involved driving hard to the net and banging in rebounds.
“It was hard-working, blue-collar, simple hockey,” Worlton said. “Our desire, our want-to, was high in the third.”
After Butcher tied it with 11:33 to play, both teams fashioned good opportunities before the end of regulation but the Knights’ Grant Valentine (34 saves) and the Bears’ Nick Nast (30 saves) were up to the task.
“He went save for save with their goalie,” said Worlton of Nast, who had a big save on a short-handed breakaway try in the second period. “He played extremely well.
“He gave us a chance to win.”
Just 1:51 into the five-minute, three-on-three overtime, Zach Remers won it for the Knights with a slap shot from the high slot.
Remers broke his stick on the shot, but it redirected off the stick of Joey Sardina just enough to fool Nast.
“Unfortunately for the goaltender, but fortunately for me, he got beat on a goal like that,” Kowal said. “I feel bad for the Kenai goalie. He was outstanding tonight.”
Saturday, the Knights’ Stephen Kelly and Remers scored goals within 28 seconds of each other in the second period, and that was all WBS netminder Andrey Svistunov needed in making 31 saves for the shutout. Magnus Lindhe had 34 saves for the Bears in front of 579.
Worlton said the first goal came from a turnover in the neutral zone. The second came due to an unfortunate bounce off of a WBS player.
“We had bad puck luck last night and we had it again tonight,” Worlton said.
The coach said the team didn’t play with emotion until the third, outshooting the Knights 12-5. Still, no goals were scored, and the Bears finished the weekend 0 for 10 on the power play.
“For us to win, we’ve got to have some power-play goals, and over the weekend, we didn’t do that,” Worlton said.
Their home slate compete, the Bears finish their season with games Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Fairbanks.
Worlton said it’s nice to see more and more energy returning to the sports complex.
“The fan support was great tonight,” he said after Friday’s game. “They stayed positive all the way through. We appreciate that support.”
Knights 4, Brown Bears 3, OT
WBS 1 2 0 1 —4
Kenai River 0 1 2 0 —3
First period — 1. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Bennett (Kelly, Dawson), sh, 10:08. Penalties — Wilkes/Barre/Scranton 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Busch (Hamacher, Maust), pp, 8:58; 3. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Maust (Knop, Remers), 10:04; 4. Kenai River, Bowe (Taormina, Goodmanson), 10:59. Penalties — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 5 for 10:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Appleton (Sardina), 1:57; 6. Kenai River, Butcher (Dufault, Inger), 8:27. Penalties — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — 7. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Remers (Zaitsev, Dietrich), 1:51. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 3-13-16-2—34; Kenai River 12-11-12-2—37.
Goalies — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Valentine (37 shots, 34 saves); Kenai River, Nast (34 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 1 for 6, Kenai River 0 for 5.
Knights 2, Brown Bears 0
WBS 0 2 0 —2
Kenai River 0 0 0 —0
First period — none. Penalties — WBS 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 1. WBS, Kelly (Beranek, Bennett), 6:42; 2. WBS, Remers (Maust, Knop), 7:10. Penalties — WBS 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — WBS 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — WBS 19-12-5—36; Kenai River 11-8-12—31.
Goalies — WBS, Svistunov (31 shots, 31 saves); Kenai River, Lindhe (36 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — WBS 0 for 5; Kenai River 0 for 5.