The Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel continued to be a thorn in the side of the Kenai River Brown Bears in the race for the North American Hockey League playoffs, sweeping the Bears on Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Steel defeated the Bears 6-2 on Friday and 4-0 on Saturday to rob the Bears of a chance to gain ground in the playoff race.
Four teams from the Midwest Division get into the playoffs. The Bears are in fifth at 12-19-2-2, five points behind the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues. The Blues lost 8-1 to Fairbanks on Friday, but defeated the Ice Dogs 4-3 on Saturday.
The Bears and Jr. Blues face off in a crucial three-game series starting Thursday at 7 p.m. at the sports complex.
The Steel are in last in the division at 11-23-1-1, six points behind the Bears. Chippewa improved to 6-8 since Carter Foguth took over as head coach on Nov. 20, including 4-0 against the Bears.
“The big thing is we’re starting to play with a lot more confidence,” Foguth said. “I think we have a fast team and we’ve been able to unleash that speed by playing a more uptempo style of game.”
Chippewa certainly found the big ice sheet at the sports complex to its liking Friday. The Steels outshot the Bears 28-27 but were able to run away with the game when Kenai River goaltenders Dennis Westergard and Gavin Enright had a rough night.
But Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said the problem was with more than goaltending. He didn’t like the way the whole team played in the first and third periods.
“It was the first night of the season I didn’t like our goaltending,” Petrich said. “We needed them tonight.”
Chippewa took a 3-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, 1 second, of the game. Defenseman Matt Clark started the scoring by flipping one in from close to the blue line. Clark also would score from long range in the third period to double his scoring output for the season.
“Those can be tough due to traffic, but you can’t have two identical goals like that in the same game,” Petrich said. “Our wings need to get out and block shots.”
When Killian Kiecker-Olson won a scrap in front of the net and scored just 4:11 in, Westergard was lifted. With 9:59 left in the first, Jacob Dirks scored on the power play for a 3-0 lead.
The goal came off a set play where the Steel send two fast players — their fastest is Dirks — streaking down the ice and send the puck long. Petrich said his team had been shown the play on film, but the Bears didn’t recognize and execute.
“We weren’t even going to call it, but we had them back on their heels a little bit so I thought, ‘Let’s try it,’” Foguth said.
Kenai River jumped back into the game quickly in the first 4:27 of the second period as Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik scored on assists from Andy Walker and JJ Boucher, and Boucher scored on assists from Trey LeBarge and Brandon Lajoie.
But goalie Igor Samokhvalov steadied the ship and kept a clean sheet the rest of the way.
“We’ve been talking to them about dealing with the ups and down during the game,” Foguth said. “They moved past the beginning of the second period and played a good third period.”
Clark scored again in the third, while Isaac Moberg added a pair of tallies.
Saturday, the Bears struggled on special teams in getting shut out. Chippewa was 3 for 5 on the power play, while the Bears were 0 for 2.
Dirks scored the lone goal of the first period on the power play. In the second, Grisha Gotovets scored, then Hutson Collins added a power-play goal before the period was up. Camden Thiesing finished the scoring in the third with another power-play goal.
Igor Samkhvalov made 37 saves for the shutout, while Enright stopped 25 or 29 for the Bears.
Petrich thanks current and former members of the military for showing up despite the subzero weather. He said the same of the fans.
“It’s really impressive,” he said. “We’ve got to do better for our fans. My apologies to them.”
Bears notes: Alec Butcher, who played for the Brown Bears for two seasons and won the NAHL MVP in his last year with the team in 2013-14, scored his first professional goal Saturday. Butcher lit the lamp for the Wheeling (West Virginia) Nailers of the ECHL.
Steel 6, Brown Bears 2
Chippewa 3 0 3 — 6
Kenai River 0 2 0 — 2
First period — 1. Chippewa, Clark (un.), 2:09; 2. Chippewa, Kiecker-Olson (Weiss), 4:11; 3. Chippewa, Dirks (Szmul, Moulton), pp, 10:01. Penalties — Chippewa 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Krajnik (A. Walker, Boucher), 2:45; 5. Kenai River, Boucher (LeBarge, Lajoie), 4:27. Penalties — Chippewa 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Chippewa, Clark (Weiss, Kiecker-Olson), 4:47; 7. Chippewa, Moberg (Kiecker-Olson), 13:45; 8. Chippewa, Moberg (un.), en, 18:00. Penalties — Chippewa 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Chippewa 11-9-8—28; Kenai River 8-9-10—27.
Goalies — Chippewa, Samokhvalov (27 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Westergard, Enright (27 shots, 21 saves).