Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets forward Jaden Johnson, Kenai River Brown Bears forward Bryce Monrean, Janesville forward Parker Mabbett and Kenai River forward Hunter Newhouse battle for the puck in front of Janesville goalie Peter Sterling on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets forward Jaden Johnson, Kenai River Brown Bears forward Bryce Monrean, Janesville forward Parker Mabbett and Kenai River forward Hunter Newhouse battle for the puck in front of Janesville goalie Peter Sterling on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

More late-game dramatics push Bears’ winning streak to 4

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Ryan Finch knew exactly what he was doing when he scored the game-winning goal Saturday in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

And as for knowing what to do on the celebration after that goal? Finch admits that could use some work.

Joe Manning started the game-winning sequence by pushing the puck to Finch near the middle of the ice. Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said he thought Finch was dead in the water and was going to cut back and wait for a line change.

“I saw the D man was trying to angle me off and his legs were wide open, so I just slid it through,” Finch said.

That alone was enough to draw howls from the announced crowd of 2,200 at the North American Hockey League game.

Finch then gained the zone with speed and ripped the puck through the defenseman’s legs and past Janesville goalie Peter Sterling low on the blocker side with 2:36 left.

“It was awesome,” Finch said. “Unreal. It was nice.”

Finch then turned around and skated the length of the ice, squatting and riding his stick like a broom before reaching the far boards and getting mobbed by his teammates.

“As you can tell from the excitement, I didn’t know what to do,” Finch said. “So I just took off and celebrated.”

The goal gave the Bears a three-game sweep of the Jets and a fourth straight win in the taut Midwest Division playoff race. Kenai River also has gotten 13 points in the seven home games it has played at the sports complex after the holiday break.

“The community being in the rink, supporting the guys and cheering them on, even out in the town, that’s so valuable to our group because they feel wanted,” Shaw said. “They’re a part of this town, even if they’re only here for a short time.”

Kenai River (25-20-2-1) is in fourth and in position for the final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division. The Jets (21-18-5-4) are in fifth with 51.

The top three spots belong to the Wisconsin Windigo with 59, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs with 57 and the Minnesota Wilderness with 55. The bottom three are the Anchorage Wolverines at 49, the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at 46 and the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues at 43.

“It’s insane,” Jets head coach Joe Dibble said of the playoff race. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Like every weekend, it changes.”

The third game of a three-game series is always going to be a little ragged due to fatigue. With the Jets playing a sixth game in nine days on a quick swing through Alaska, the game got even more ragged.

“That’s a lot of hockey, and they were pushing us pretty good at times during the game,” Shaw said. “So I give our guys credit. We fought through quite a bit of adversity.”

After a scoreless first, Janesville went up 2-0 in the first four minutes of the second period on goals by Connor Deturris and Parker Mabbett. Midway through the second, Garett Drotts, assisted by Bryce Monrean and Joe Manning, cut it to 2-1.

Just 2:37 into the third period, a kneeing penalty on Finch and a bench minor put the Bears on the five-on-three for two minutes. Janesville, 0 for 7 on the power play for the night, failed to increase its lead.

“Our power play was atrocious,” Dibble said. “I think a lot of that was guys trying to do too much on their own and trying to be a superstar instead of a super teammate.”

Shaw said it wasn’t the smartest bench minor for him to take, but he added he was standing up for his players.

“They all looked at me on the bench and said, ‘We got this,’” Shaw said. “I just think that speaks to the group — everything that we’ve been working on to turn the culture around and lay a new foundation.”

With the momentum of the penalty kill, Drotts, assisted by Luke Hause and Monrean, tied it at 2 with 14:26 left.

Janesville showed resolve when Mabbett scored again for a 3-2 lead with 12:29 left.

Kenai River then killed off another penalty and used that momentum to get a goal from Mason Wharton, assisted by Drotts and Hunter Newhouse, to tie it at 3 with 8:42 left.

“In a game where everybody’s exhausted and it’s more about just trying to out-will and find an extra inch, you get momentum in weird ways,” Shaw said. “Tonight it was the penalty kill.”

With the building buzzing, the Bears pressed the attack and found the net with 7:42 left, but the goal was called off because Sterling’s helmet came off before the score.

“We didn’t even question it,” Shaw said. “It wasn’t worth the time, because we knew how it would go. It was just, ‘Back to work.’”

That work meant killing off two more penalties, including 55 more seconds of five-on-three. Janesville rung the pipe during the five-on-three, but didn’t score.

“Special teams was amazing,” Finch said. “We wouldn’t have won that game if they didn’t sell out their bodies.”

The forward also said goalie Nils Wallstrom is a big reason the Bears made it to overtime. Wallstrom and Sterling both had 39 saves.

“He just makes unreal saves,” Finch said of Wallstrom. “When he’s on his game, he’s unstoppable. You won’t score on him.”

Kenai River hosts the Minnesota Wilderness on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday

Brown Bears 4, Jets 3, OT

Janesville 0 2 1 0 —3

Kenai River 0 1 2 1 —4

First period — none. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.

Second period — 1. Janesville, Deturris (Doyle, Steenari), 0:10; 2. Janesville, Mabbett (Steenari, Deturris), 3:59; 3. Kenai River, Drotts (Monrean, Manning), 10:46. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.

Third period — 4. Kenai River, Drotts (Hause, Monrean), 5:34; 5. Janesville, Mabbett (Wagener, de Haro), 7:31; 6. Kenai River, Wharton (Drotts, Newhouse), 11:18. Penalties — Janesville 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 5 for 10:00.

Overtime — 7. Kenai River, Finch (Manning, Monrean), 2:24. Penalties — none.

Shots on goal — Janesville 14-11-16-1—42; Kenai River 13-13-13-4—43.

Goalies — Janesville, Sterling (43 shots, 39 saves); Kenai River, Wallstrom (42 shots, 39 saves).

Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Janesville 0 for 7.

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Ashton Christman has his shot blocked by Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets defenseman Charlie Lieberman on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Ashton Christman has his shot blocked by Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets defenseman Charlie Lieberman on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Garett Drotts carries the puck against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Garett Drotts carries the puck against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River Brown Bears mob Ryan Finch after he scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River Brown Bears mob Ryan Finch after he scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets goalie Peter Sterling tries to corral the puck Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regiona Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets goalie Peter Sterling tries to corral the puck Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regiona Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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