Ryan Hipsag of the Kenai River Brown Bears and Kole Altergott of the Minnesota Wilderness fight Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Ryan Hipsag of the Kenai River Brown Bears and Kole Altergott of the Minnesota Wilderness fight Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Saturday: Brown Bears finish sweep of Wilderness

The Kenai River Brown Bears completed a two-game sweep of the Minnesota Wilderness with a 5-2 victory in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

The sweep continues an odd season for the Bears. The squad was in the thick of the playoff hunt before starting an 18-game losing streak in early December.

Kenai River has suddenly returned to winning ways, posting a three-game winning streak and taking nine of 10 points in the last five games.

At 17-32-4-2, the Bears remain in last place in the Midwest Division. Strangely, though, take out the 18-game skid and the team is 17-16-2-2 this season, an awfully good record for team that managed an 18-game losing streak.

“There’s always ebbs and flows,” said Kenai River defenseman Luke Hause, who is in his second year with the team. “This season, we kind of took a hit during the middle of the year but we traded away a bunch of guys, got a bunch of new guys and I think we’re really building a culture here.”

The Wilderness had plenty for which to play. At 27-23-2-2, they are one point from the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division.

“I thought it was sad, actually, how we came out,” Minnesota head coach Colten St. Clair said. “They looked like a team pushing for a playoff spot and we didn’t.

“We were soft. We were easy to play against. And we played individually.”

Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said he knew the Wilderness would present a problem Saturday night after losing Friday, then seeing the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel win earlier Saturday to go up by a point.

The Brown Bears consistently got the puck deep in the first period and put on a fierce forecheck.

“We knew it was going to be important to get off to a good start and manage pucks early on,” Shaw said. “I thought we did a pretty good job of that in the first period.

“It allowed us to kind of build throughout the period.”

The Bears built a 2-0 lead after the first period, with Brady Engelkes scoring on Hause and Dylan Contreras assists, and Roope Tuomioksa scoring on Samuel Sisik and Blake Norris assists.

The Wilderness came out with more physical play in the second and Kenai River had more difficulty advancing through the neutral zone.

With 16:11 left in the period, Harper Searles made it 2-1 on assists from Kole Altergott and Nate Murray.

Kenai River’s Ryan Hipsag served notice seconds later that the Bears would not be pushed around by engaging Altergott in a fight.

“It was good timing,” Shaw said of the fight. “He’s been playing some really good hockey. He scored a goal last night.

“It’s good to kind of cut the momentum.”

With 3:20 left in the second, Andy Larson put the Bears up 3-1 on assists from Jacob Margarit and Engelkes.

Larson’s shot came from a bad angle and got through the body of Minnesota goalie Nick Erickson. The Bears had a few other goals just trickle across the line in the game.

On the flip side, the Wilderness had a few looks at open nets but either couldn’t settle the puck or misfired.

Shaw said a team creates its puck luck, and it’s nice to have the luck turning the Bears’ way.

“Knock on wood here, we’ve been finding ways to put pucks in the net,” he said. “And we’ve been getting good goaltending.

“You have to have both to win in this league. It’s too good. It’s too deep.”

The Wilderness were able to cut the lead to 3-2 on a power-play goal with 26 seconds left in the second period. Payton Nelson scored with help from Beau Janzig and Peteris Purmalis.

“At this time of year, no matter who you are playing, if you go down, it’s hard to come back a lot of times, and they’re playing with nothing to lose,” St. Clair said. “Once it started getting tight, when it was 3-2 there at the end, we started again to revert to being individual and making too many plays that are cute instead of ending up in their net.”

The Wilderness did put heat on the Bears defense and goalie AJ Reyelts to start the third.

“To us, it’s all attitude and effort in the D zone,” Hause said. “We talk a lot about heart.

“We like to play with a lot of heart and we take pride in it. We know what works down there can lead to some offense.”

With 9:26 left in the game, Landon MacDonald gave the Bears breathing room with one of those goals that just inched past the line. Gavin Duckworth and Margarit assisted.

With 1:16 left, Engelkes iced it on an empty-netter assisted by Owen Hanson.

The puck was in the air at the Minnesota blue line and Engelkes managed to bring it down under pressure and score.

“Brady makes a nice basketball play to get up there, then fling it to the net,” Shaw said. “That’s what you have to do. I think he got clobbered pretty good when he tried to push it toward the net.”

Engelkes now has nine goals and six assists in 16 games for the Bears since being acquired in a trade.

Reyelts made 29 saves for the Bears, while Erickson stopped 19. Monday, Reyelts was given second star for Bauer Hockey Midwest Division Star of the Week.

Kenai River hosts the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in the final home series of the season. The game are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday.

“It’s good to see a crowd here tonight,” Shaw said. “It’s important for them to see us have success.

“Almost all signs are pointing in the right direction.”

Owen Hanson of the Kenai River Brown Bears draws a tripping penalty on Nash Jacobsma of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Owen Hanson of the Kenai River Brown Bears draws a tripping penalty on Nash Jacobsma of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Andy Larson works behind the net against Hawke Huff of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Andy Larson works behind the net against Hawke Huff of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Young fans help the Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate the goal of Landon MacDonald on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Young fans help the Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate the goal of Landon MacDonald on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Minnesota Wilderness forward Peteris Purmalis can’t settle the puck in time to score Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Minnesota Wilderness forward Peteris Purmalis can’t settle the puck in time to score Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Roope Tuomioksa of the Kenai River Brown Bears attacks Payton Nelson and goalie Nick Erickson of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Roope Tuomioksa of the Kenai River Brown Bears attacks Payton Nelson and goalie Nick Erickson of the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, March 23, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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