Twenty-four hours after being handed a 6-2 Friday loss by the Minnesota Wilderness, the Kenai River Brown Bears responded with an emphatic 5-1 win Saturday night in front of 1,055 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to post a weekend series split.
The victory boosted Kenai River’s season mark to 6-8-0, putting the Bears in a tie for last with the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill in the Midwest Division of the North American Hockey League. Both squads stand at 12 points, while the Fairbanks Ice Dogs lead the division with 21.
“We wish we would’ve come out with a little more of the same intensity we had tonight, last night, but we executed tonight,” said Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant. “Our preparation was better, our execution was better and I thought our compete level was better and more consistent throughout the entire game.”
After giving up the first goal in the second period, the Brown Bears held Minnesota in check the remaining distance while scoring five unanswered goals, including two empty-netters in the final 91 seconds.
Alec Derks stood tall for Kenai River in goal, stopping 30 of 31 shots, including a late barrage in the second period.
“I just kind of shook that (first one) off and kept going, because I knew I was in the zone,” Derks said. “It definitely didn’t affect me much.”
Kenai River forward Jack Gessert scored twice Saturday to extend his points streak to five consecutive games. Gessert’s three points gave him eight points in the last five contests. Tanner Schachle also tallied three points Saturday with a goal and a pair of assists.
The win came at the right time as well, as the Bears prepare to head out on the road for a three-game series next weekend with the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild, then a pair of contests with division rival Fairbanks on Nov. 7 and 8.
“It’s an important two points for us, especially going on the road for two weeks against Wenatchee and Fairbanks,” Beauparlant said. “It was a good confidence boost for our club.”
Early on, the Bears managed to stave off two Minnesota power plays to keep a scoreless game at the first intermission.
The second period provided a little more in the way of goals, starting with the visiting side.
“Even though we gave up the first goal, our energy level stayed up, we stayed positive, and we were rewarded for it,” Beauparlant said.
After starting the second period with 1:29 left to kill on a penalty, the Wilderness soon found themselves on a power play of their own, which they used to score the opening goal just over two minutes in. Niklas Lehtimaki took an assist from Tobias Bjorklund and scored on a wraparound to give Minnesota the lead.
But Derks and company didn’t panic.
“One of the big points today was sticking to our system,” Derks said. “If we’re trying to do our own thing, we’re not gonna be able to develop a lot.”
Kenai River responded with a pair of goals in quick succession, starting with Joey Sardina leading a breakout at midice and chipping it in from close range to tie the game up. Just 1:15 later, Ben Campbell let loose a shot that Jack Gessert managed to deflect, giving Kenai River a 2-1 lead.
“Having back-to-back goals can really suck the energy out of an opposing team,” Beauparlant said. “It gave our guys an energy kick and it lasted the rest of the period.”
Suddenly finding themselves trailing by a goal, the Wilderness turned on the offensive attacks, sending a flurry of shots at Derks in the waning minutes of the period but seeing none go through. Derks stood tall with several spectacular saves. Minnesota outshot Kenai River 8-2 in that time.
Heading into the third period, Derks continued to deflect a number of big shots, a few of which skated directly in front of Derks, but the 18-year-old from Illinois held steady.
“He made the saves he is supposed to make, and then he made two or three big ones,” Beauparlant said. “That’s all you can ask of your goaltender.”
It was Maurin Bouvet notching the insurance goal with 10:31 to go, collecting the loose puck right in front of the Wilderness net and directing it in for a 3-1 Brown Bears lead.
Gessert and Schachle added goals on an empty net with 1:31 and 23 seconds to go, respectively.
Kenai River will begin its three-game series with Wenatchee Friday night at 6:05 p.m. ADT.
Brown Bears 5, Wilderness 1
Minnesota 0 1 0 —1
Kenai River 0 2 3 —5
First period — none. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 1. Minnesota, Lehtimaki (Bjorklund), pp, 2:09; 2. Kenai River, Sardina (Wunder), 6:47; 3. Kenai River, Gessert (Campbell, Schachle), 8:02. Penalties — Minnesota 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Bouvet (Schachle, Gessert), 9:19; 5. Kenai River, Gessert (un.), en, 18:29; 6. Kenai River, Schachle (Berglund), en, 20:00. Penalties — Minnesota 3 for 14:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Minnesota 10-15-6—31; Kenai River 8-12-10—30.
Goalies — Minnesota, Kautz (28 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Derks (31 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Minnesota 1 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 5.