The Kenai River Brown Bears rebounded from a 2-1 loss to the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild on Friday by defeating the Wild 2-1 on Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center in front of 747 fans.
The win was crucial as the Brown Bears battle for a spot in the North American Hockey League playoffs.
Kenai River improved to 23-18-2 with the victory, moving up to fourth place in the West Division.
The top four teams in the West make the playoffs. The Bears are one point ahead of Fresno (Calif.) for the final playoff spot. The Monsters have played one more game than the Brown Bears.
Wenatchee falls to 24-14-4 with the loss. The Wild are in third place in the West, seven points behind second-place Fairbanks.
Saturday’s victory continued an odd trend for the Wild and their goaltenders.
On Friday, Robert Nichols got the start for the Wild and used the top goals-against average in the league to lead his squad to a 2-1 victory. Nichols moved to 15-4-3 on the year.
On Saturday, Greg Lewis, owner of the second-best goals-against average in the league, got the start and lost 2-1. Lewis is now just 9-10-1 this year.
According to Wenatchee coach John Becanic, Lewis has now lost four games 1-0 and another five games 2-1.
“We don’t know what it is,” Becanic said after Friday’s game. “We’ve tried everything, including flip-flopping the days on which they play.
“Nothing makes any difference.”
On Saturday, Bobby Murphy started the scoring for the Brown Bears, on assists from Matt Thompson and Ryan Walker. Murphy scored with 13:09 left in the first period.
Wenatchee tied the game in the second period on a power-play goal from Ben Carey, with an assist from Dylan Abood.
Kenai River took the lead for good with 7:42 left in the second period. Thompson scored on assists from Raymond Stenehjem and Murphy.
Austin Severson was able to shut down the Wild in the third period, even though Kenai River was outshot 8-2. Severson had 18 saves in the game, while Lewis had 16 saves.
On Friday, the Wild jumped to a two-goal lead and stifled the Brown Bears the rest of the way for a 2-1 victory in front of 634 fans.
After Friday’s game, the Wild had given up just 69 goals all year, by far the stingiest total in the NAHL. Janesville (Wis.) was next at 90.
“I’d like to score more than two goals, I’d like to win by more than 2-1,” Becanic said. “We don’t give up a ton of goals, though. When we score two goals, we have a good shot at winning.”
Especially when the Wild are on the road and have Nichols in net. Wenatchee moved to 14-5-1 on the road vs. 10-8-3 at home with Friday’s victory.
Heading into Friday’s contest, the Bears had played Wenatchee four times and recorded a shootout win, an overtime win, a regulation win and a loss.
Problem was, all of those games had come in Wenatchee. After Friday’s game, the Brown Bears were 9-11-0 at home vs. 13-7-2 on the road.
Wenatchee is second in the league in attendance, averaging 3,042 fans per game. Becanic said playing in front of that many people fires up the opposition.
He also said many of the parents of the players with the Alaska franchises fly in to Wenatchee to watch their sons play, giving those players from the Lower 48 a rare chance to play in front of family.
“The team we saw tonight was not the team we saw two weeks ago in our building,” Becanic said, referring to the Brown Bears.
Kenai River coach Oliver David said he agreed that his team did not have the same energy on Friday as it did in Wenatchee. He said his squad is comfortable playing in the low-scoring contests in which Wenatchee excels.
He said the only way his team can compete in those contests, though, is with large amounts of energy.
“Our effort was there at times, and at times it was off,” David said. “We didn’t retrieve pucks the way we need to.
“It was just a blah kind of night, and that plays into their hands.”
Wenatchee got its first goal with 4:02 left in the first period. Jacob Barber scored his first goal for the Wild this year in his fifth game since coming to Wenatchee in a trade from a United States Hockey League franchise.
Last season, Barber scored 24 goals for the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer before being traded to Wenatchee for the last 16 games of the season and recording 10 goals there.
“It was nice for him to finally get one,” Becanic said. “He’s been a bit snakebitten.”
With Barber’s goal, the Wild are now 22-4-1 when scoring first in the game.
While the first goal showcased Wenatchee’s ability to trade for USHL talent, the second goal showed the team’s ability to groom talent.
Wenatchee has a Jr. Wild program, and Brad LeLievre was called up from the Under-18 team for the game.
The 16-year-old responded by scoring the eventual game winner, giving the Wild a 2-0 lead with 9:08 left in the second period.
“We play against big-market teams in our division, and we’re happy to accept that challenge,” David said. “If we play with energy, we can compete against anybody in our division.”
David said his squad played with more energy in the third period, and was able to win the period.
Sean Muller, on an assist from Murphy, scored his 12th goal of the season with 16:03 left in the game.
However, the rest of the period was back and forth, with neither team really getting any great chances. The Brown Bears outshot Wenatchee 7-5 in the final frame en route to being outshot 28-24 for the game.
Nichols had 23 saves, while Severson had 26. Severson kept the 2-0 game within reach with 1:26 left in the second period, when a Kenai River defender slipped and yielded a breakaway to Shawn Pauly, who has the second-most goals for the Wild. Severson stuffed Pauly.
David said the best player for his team Friday was defenseman Jesse Ramsey.
“We challenged him to play with more intensity, because sometimes it looks like he doesn’t play with intensity,” David said. “Tonight, he was not accepting what was happening on the ice at all.
“He was vocal about it. He’s come a long way as a leader.”
The Brown Bears host the Wild on Friday and Saturday at the sports center. Both games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Wild 2, Brown Bears 1
Wenatchee 1 1 0 —2
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
First period — 1. Wenatchee, Barber (Pauly), 15:58. Penalties — Wenatchee 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Wenatchee, LeLievre (Saylor), 10:52. Penalties — Wenatchee 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Muller (Murphy), 3:57. Penalties — Wenatchee 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Wenatchee 13-10-5—28; Kenai River 10-7-7—24.
Goalies — Wenatchee, Nichols (24 shots, 23 saves); Kenai River, Severson (28 shots, 26 saves).
Power plays — Wenatchee 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 2.
Brown Bears 2, Wild 1
Wenatchee 0 1 0 —1
Kenai River 1 1 0 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Murphy (Thompson, Walker), 6:51. Penalties — Wenatchee 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Second period — 2. Wenatchee, Carey (Abood), pp, 6:53. 3. Kenai River, Thompson (Stenehjem, Murphy), 12:18. Penalties — Wenatchee 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Wenatchee 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Wenatchee 7-4-8—19; Kenai River 6-10-2—18.
Goalies — Wenatchee, Lewis (18 shots, 16 saves); Kenai River, Severson (19 shots, 18 saves).
Power plays — Wenatchee 1 for 6; Kenai River 0 for 4.