The Minnesota Wilderness spoiled the debut of Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Jeff Worlton with a sweep Friday and Saturday in North American Hockey League play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Wilderness won 6-0 victory Friday in front of 436 fans and 5-2 Saturday in front of 431.
The Brown Bears fell to 2-33-1, while the Wilderness, the defending Robertson Cup champions, improved to 24-10-3 and are tied for the third-best record in the league. Kenai River fell to 0-4 against Minnesota this season.
Saturday, the Wilderness scored four times in the second period to open up a 5-0 lead. Sam Carlson and Croix Evingson both scored in the third period to close the gap, but the deficit was too much to overcome.
Luke Kania got the win in net for Minnesota, stopping 27 of 29 shots. Magnus Lindhe, a new addition to the roster, started in goal for Kenai River, saving 21 of 25 shots, but was relieved by Nick Nast, who blocked 22 of 23.
Friday, Nick Altmann had three assists for the Wilderness, while Connor Bucsis and Ashton Calder each had a pair of goals. Netminder Chase Munroe had his second shutout of the year for Minnesota.
Kenai River had snapped a 30-game string without a win on Jan. 9, but after the game former head coach Geoff Beauparlant was removed in favor of Worlton. Travel difficulties for the Bears then made it possible for the Bears to only have two practices with Worlton before Friday’s game.
Even though the Wilderness traveled from 2 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Thursday, they were still able to run away with the game.
“It wasn’t an easy day yesterday for us, but they are going through some changes right now,” Minnesota head coach Corey Millen said of the Bears. “I thought they played pretty hard, but it’s been a tough year for them. It’s not an easy scenario.
“We just focused on keeping our habits right, and we were able to do that more as the game wore on.”
Jacob Tinker gave the Wilderness a 1-0 lead after the first period.
With 6 minutes, 46 seconds, left in the second period, Brown Bears forward Justin Bofshever had a one-on-one with Munroe but couldn’t convert.
The Wilderness pounced, with Calder scoring at 6:22 and Bucsis tallying at 5:52 for a daunting 3-0 lead.
“They had a great chance to make it 1-1,” said Millen, a former head coach of the now-defunct Alaska Avalanche who said he still enjoys coming back to Alaska to see friends and family. “If they score there, it’s a different game.”
Following up a missed golden scoring opportunity by giving up goals was a problem under Beauparlant — a problem Worlton will have to get fixed to turn the team around.
“That’s a team that’s been beaten down,” Worlton said. “We don’t believe we can score goals, and we don’t believe we can win, either.
“We have to believe we can play with them, and we showed it at times.”
Nast was pulled after the third goal in favor of Lindhe, but Worlton said that was not a reflection on Nast’s play.
“I thought he played really well and gave us a chance,” Worlton said. “It was nothing he did wrong.”
The Bears also didn’t push through to the finish line, giving up a Calder tally with 3:05 left, then yielding goals to Isak Bergland and Bucsis in the final minute.
“That’s part of the growing pains, part of coming in and building up a team that’s been beaten up a lot,” Worlton said.
The coach said the main positive on the night was holding the Wilderness, who have the top power play in the league, to an 0-for-4 night.
“Some players are buying in, and some aren’t yet,” Worlton said.
Saturday’s clash began in similar fashion. Ashton Calder got Minnesota on the board in the opening period of play with a short-handed strike with 1 minute, 33 seconds, remaining. Soon, it seemed every player was getting in on the scoring.
Alex Toscano found the net 1:48 into the second stanza, and was followed by Jack Kelly just 1:40 later and Jack Forbort 1:20 after that for a 4-0 Wilderness lead. Kobe Roth notched a power play score with one second left on the clock to widen the gap.
“I think a lot of it was self-inflicted wounds,” Worlton said. “We did it to ourselves, and it was because of a lack of paying attention to details.”
Carlson’s goal came just 19 ticks into the third frame, while Evingson was able to take advantage of a tripping call on Minnesota forward Isak Bergland to score on the power play midway through the period.
After giving up three goals in the final 3:05 of Friday’s contest, Kenai River kept Minnesota scoreless in Saturday’s third period. Worlton said he was pleased to see the late effort pay off Saturday.
“I think we played better today than yesterday,” he said. “I know we got better today. When you’re struggling, you have to look for the little building blocks.
“The biggest thing is we didn’t quit in the third (period), we kept battling. That’s the positive.”
The Bear will host the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex.
Wilderness 6, Brown Bears 0
Minnesota 1 2 3 —6
Kenai River 0 0 0 —0
First period — 1. Minnesota, Tinker (Miller), 13:54. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Minnesota, Calder (Altmann, Bergland), 13:38; 3. Minnesota, Bucsis (Trapp), 14:08. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Minnesota, Calder (Altmann, Hurley), 16:55; 5. Minnesota, Bergland (Altmann), 19:20; 6. Minnesota, Bucsis (Bloom, Toscano), 19:48. Penalties — Minnesota 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Minnesota 14-10-16—40; Kenai River 3-6-6—15.
Goalies — Minnesota, Munroe (15 shots, 15 saves); Kenai River, Nast (22 shots, 19 saves), Lindhe (18 shots, 15 saves).
Power plays — Minnesota 0 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 2.
Wilderness 5, Brown Bears 2
Minnesota 1 4 0 —5
Kenai River 0 0 2 —2
First period — 1. Minnesota, Calder (Jaks, Vold), sh, 18:27. Penalties — Minnesota 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Minnesota, Toscano (Bloom, Bender), 1:48; 3. Minnesota, Kelly (Vold, Altmann), 3:28; 4. Minnesota, Forbort (Toscano), 4:48; 5. Minnesota, Roth (Miller, Bucsis), pp, 19:59. Penalties — Minnesota 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Carlson (Lehtimaki, Marshall), 0:19; 7. Kenai River, Evingson (Fasegha, Butcher), pp, 10:12. Penalties — Minnesota 4 for 19:00; Kenai River 3 for 17:00.
Shots on goal — Minnesota 22-14-12—48; Kenai River 10-7-12—29.
Goalies — Minnesota, Kania (29 shots, 27 saves); Kenai River (25 shots, 21 saves), Nast (23 shots, 22 saves).