Saturday, the Kenai River Brown Bears rewarded the home crowd for helping to bring the team back from inactivity with a 5-4 shootout victory over the Shreveport (Louisiana) Mudbugs in front of 689 fans at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League play.
Latvian born Emils Ezitis scored the only goal in the shootout, sending the Bears and the crowd into a frenzy.
Gil Garcia and Luke Radetic both were denied by Shreveport goalie Gustavs Grigals in the shootout, while Kenai River netminder Gavin Enright warded off shots from the Mudbugs’ Cameron Cook, Roberts Baranovskis and Kieran Durgan.
Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich said the Mudbugs, owners of the third most points in the league, showed why they’re among the NAHL’s elite this season.
“They’re a freaking really good team,” he said. “We couldn’t be prouder of our guys.”
The Brown Bears dropped a 3-1 first-period lead Saturday with three straight goals given up. After a goal by David Kaplan with just five seconds left in the first put the Bears up by two, the Mudbugs wasted no time cutting it down again before the intermission, getting a goal with the buzzer sounding. Shreveport tied it in the second frame and took a 4-3 lead in the third before the Bears responded with a Connor Scahill power-play strike.
A crucial moment came with 9:51 left in the game when a Shreveport goal was called off, maintaining the tie. The shot came as a slew of players crashed into the net, knocking it off its mooring as the puck went in.
Officials originally called it good, but a secondary crew member behind the glass caught the attention of the refs to help the Bears’ case. A short talk between both benches resulted in the overturned call.
“We were happy it went our way,” Petrich said. “And if it doesn’t, we just battle back.”
Petrich said the shootout lineup of Garcia, Radetic and Ezitis worked in a Sept. 29 shootout win in Springfield, Illinois, so he decided to keep that order.
“It was even Latvia against Latvia,” he said, referring to Ezitis scoring against fellow countryman Grigals, who hails from the same hometown of Riga.
The game featured nine penalties handed out in the third period for 40 combined minutes as players tested each other.
“For 65 minutes, I’ll take it,” Petrich said.
After an opening 14 minutes of scoreless play, the two teams scored five times in the final six minutes and four in a 1:14 span.
Eagle River native Sutton McDonald opened the night with his second goal of the season and NAHL career.
Shreveport knotted it up with a Ryan Burnett strike, but it didn’t last long. Radetic put the Bears ahead again just seven seconds later, and Kaplan added to the lead with a mere five ticks left on the first-period clock to make it 3-1.
However, the Mudbugs caught the Bears off-guard after the midice faceoff to score at the buzzer, quickly pushing the puck onto the Kenai River net and poking in a goal in a scramble at the net to cut the lead to 3-2 at the first break.
A pair of touchy penalty kills by the Bears kept the lead alive in the first five minutes of the second frame, but Shreveport finally busted through with seven minutes left with a one-legged laser shot by Brendan VanSweden that whipped by Enright’s glove to tie it up at 3-all.
Enright kept the tie alive in the last few minutes of the period with a handful of deadly glove saves as Shreveport enjoyed a late power play. Enright blocked three hard shots in a span of 18 seconds.
Shreveport took a 4-3 lead with 17:30 left in the final period, but it didn’t last long. Alex Spencer was sent off for a roughing penalty just 10 seconds after taking the lead, and the Bears made it count just nine seconds into the power play when Cameron McDonald collected the puck and shot from the left circle to tie the proceedings up again, much to the delight of the raucous crowd.