A couple more games like Friday’s, and the Kenai River Brown Bears better get used to looking up in the North American Hockey League West Division standings.
Perhaps the Bears’ sloppiest effort on defense this season resulted in a 6-4 loss to the first-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer in front of 758 at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The setback drops Kenai River (15-7-1, 31 points) to third place behind the second-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs (13-5-6, 32 points) and the leading Avs (18-8-1, 37 points).
Kenai River, which held the top spot for about two weeks, hosts Alaska again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the sports center.
Improving the defense will be the top priority heading into the series finale.
“We were just breaking down defensively, we weren’t picking up guys, a lot of miscommunication, guys weren’t talking out there on the ice,” said Kenai River assistant Kyle Bailey, speaking for head coach Oliver David, who was unavailable for comment. “A lot of guys getting lose, guys finding open areas with our guys not keeping their head on a swivel.”
Alaska’s Jeff Bergh was the biggest benefactor of those miscues, tallying a hat trick. Bergh scored twice in the opening period and again in the third. His final score made it 5-2, a lead the Avs never relinquished.
Kenai River goaltender Paul Bourbeau was under fire all night, making 28 saves on 34 shots. Bailey said the goalie played well, much better than the numbers might indicate.
“Bourbeau played an unbelievable game, he kept us in that game the whole way through,” Bailey said. “We just didn’t help him out. We just couldn’t do anything to help him out.”
The Bears faced an uphill climb all evening.
Bergh gave the Avs a 1-0 lead midway through the first period when the puck skipped to him on a faceoff and he squeezed a shot past Bourbeau from the left side. Wehebe Darge earned the assist.
Bergh then made it 2-0 with 6:08 to play in the opening frame after the puck came his way during a scramble in the zone. He gained possession off a pass from Codey Hansen and lit the lamp with a right-handed shot.
The Bears cut the lead in half when Bobby Murphy buried a rebound off assists from Brett Lubanski and Alex Frere at the 2:55 mark.
The teams exchanged goals in a 30-second window during the second, with Alaska grabbing a 3-1 lead on a Mitch Kontny goal with 8:16 to go before Kenai River pulled within one 27 second later thanks to Miikael Arkimo, who finished assists from Matt Thompson and Austin Sture.
However, Alaska scored three straight, building an insurmountable lead.
Brandon Brossoit gave the Avs a two-goal advantage late in the second, finishing a bang-bang play on assists from Connor Wright and Kevin Novakovich.
Bergh completed his hat trick with a goal on the power play with about 16 minutes to play in the third, finishing assists from Brossoit and Christianson, andWright put the Bears away with a goal just inside the 10-minute mark.
Nick O’Donnell and Lubanski goals made it respectable later in the period, but the damage had been done.
“For as bad as we played in that game, to come away with a 6-4 loss is a good sign,” Bailey said. “The guys clawed back and got back into the game.”
It’s the first time this season the Bears have lost two straight games, and the six goals were the most the team has yielded.
How the team responds Saturday will in part shape the rest of the season.
“I think our team is pretty good at fighting back and not giving up,” said Granato, a co-captain. “I think we’ll be pretty resilient and come back tomorrow pretty strong.”
Avalanche 6, Brown Bears 4
Alaska 2 2 2 --6
Kenai River 1 1 2 --4
First period – 1. Alaska, Bergh (Darge), 9:59; 2. Alaska, Bergh (Hansen), 13:52; 3. Kenai River, Murphy (Frere), 17:05. Penalties – Alaska none; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period – 4. Alaska, Kontny (Christianson, Kessler), 11:44; 5. Kenai River, Arkimo (Thompson, Sture); 6. Alaska, Brandon Brossoit (Wright, Novakovich), 18:47. Penalties – Alaska 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period – 7. Alaska, Bergh (Brossoit, Christianson), pp, 3:06; 8. Alaska, Wright (Schmitz, Hansen), 10:11; 9. Kenai River, O’Donnell (Ramsey, Granato), 11:48; 10. Kenai River, Lubanski (Murphy), pp, 13:43; 11. Penalties – Alaska 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Penalties – Alaska 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal – Alaska (13-13-8—34); Kenai River (13-6-14—33).
Goalies – Alaska, Engum (33 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Bourbeau (34 shots, 28 saves).
Power plays – Alaska 1 for 3; Kenai River 1 for 2.