The Kenai River Brown Bears dropped Friday and Saturday games to the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild to fall three points out of a playoff spot.
On Friday, Jacob Barber scored twice to lead the Wild to a 3-1 victory in front of 543 at the Soldotna Sports Center. On Saturday, the Wild came back from a 2-0 deficit with five unanswered goals for a 5-2 win in front of 642.
While the Brown Bears were losing on Friday and Saturday, the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters were taking two games from the Dawson Creek (BC) Rage.
The Monsters are now are now 21-16-9 in the North American Hockey League West Division, good for 51 points and fourth place. Kenai River is 23-20-2, good for 48 points and fifth place. The top four teams in the West make the playoffs.
By sweeping the Brown Bears, the Wild put some space between themselves and fourth place. Third-place Wenatchee is 26-15-5, just four points behind the second-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer.
Kenai River has 15 games remaining in the regular season, eight of which will come against the Avalanche, against whom the Brown Bears are 2-6.
The Bears travel to Palmer for 7:30 p.m. games against the Avs on Friday and Saturday.
“We just know one thing as a team — the only way we are going to make the playoffs is if we are playing hard,” Brown Bears coach Oliver David said after Friday’s loss.
Barber was brought in to be the difference in games like Friday night. Barber was playing in his ninth game after being acquired from the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League.
“He’s a goal scorer,” said Wild coach John Becanic after Barber scored his third and fourth goals of the year for Wenatchee.
Barber’s goal with 7 minutes, 48 seconds, left in the second period provided a turning point in the game.
The second started scoreless, but Ben Carey, the Wild’s leading scorer, lit the lamp for the 19th time this year just 1:10 into the second to give his team the lead.
The Brown Bears then picked up their play, culminating in Raymond Stenehjem ripping home a one-time slap shot to tie the game with 12:19 left in the second. The goal was set up by a patient and aware pass from Brett Lubanski.
“I really thought they took over the game in the second period,” Becanic said of Kenai River. “When they get going, they are tough to play against.
“They are big, strong and they have a lot of skill.”
With Robert Nichols, whose 1.61 goals-against average is tops in the league, making several big saves, the Wild were able to stay even as the Bears continued the onslaught after Stenehjem’s goal.
But with 8:22 left in the second, Becanic had seen enough and called timeout.
“We were running around and chasing the puck,” Becanic said. “We just needed to settle down and get back to the basics — stay between the puck and the net.”
Becanic also told his team to be aware that the Brown Bears were being aggressive on offense with four players in the zone.
Just 34 seconds after the timeout, the Wild’s awareness paid off. Barber got a pass a step ahead of the Kenai River defense and turned it into a breakaway, beating Kenai River goalie Austin Severson for a 2-1 lead.
“When somebody like Barber is buzzing around and playing with confidence, it causes problems,” David said. “He gives them what they’ve kind of been lacking.
“He has a goal-scoring touch.”
Barber’s goal shifted the momentum back to Wenatchee. The Wild got behind the Brown Bears defense again for a breakaway with 2:40 left in the second period, but this time Severson made the save.
The Brown Bears had a chance to turn the tables late in the second period and early in the third period when they went on the power play.
Wenatchee was playing its fifth game in eight nights. The Wild also were down to 15 players due to injury and illness.
However, the Wild killed off the power play and dominated the early part of the third period, taking seven shots on goal until Barber scored with 9:57 left in the game for a 3-1 lead.
“I was happy with how much energy we played with,” Becanic said. “I mean, we haven’t been sitting around, we’ve been flying all over Alaska.”
David didn’t have a problem with his team’s energy, but he said his team’s timing was off.
“We didn’t have it in certain areas tonight,” David said. “We were losing stick battles and we couldn’t control passes or bouncing pucks.”
David pulled Severson after Barber’s second goal, but he said it wasn’t because of the goalie’s 28-save performance.
Gabe Grunwald came in and did not face a shot for the last half of the game as the Wild concentrated on defense, keeping the Brown Bears from generating consistent pressure in the latter half of the third.
“He made a few great saves,” David said of Severson. “We’ve got another guy who hasn’t seen a lot of time.”
David said he liked the way new defenseman Jake Spinder played. Overall, the coach said the defense was OK.
David said the forwards did not play well, although he credited Conor Deal, Kellen Wasell and Dominic Granato with good games.
“The forwards did not shoot enough,” David said. “I thought there were many times they had the puck on their stick and there wasn’t anything more to create, but they were stick-handling instead of shooting.”
Nichols made 17 saves for the Wild.
On Saturday, Marek Hemsky scored in the first period to give the Brown Bears the 1-0 lead. With just one second left in the first period, Stenehjem had a short-handed tally to give the Bears a 2-0 lead.
The Wild took over the game in the second period, outshooting Kenai River 13-5 en route to a 29-23 advantage for the game.
Matt Cope, Max McHugh, Jerad Tafoya and Tyler Rostenkowski all scored on Severson. Barber added an empty-net tally in the third period.
Nichols made 21 saves to improve to 17-5-3.
Wild 3, Brown Bears 1
Wenatchee 0 2 1 —3
Kenai River 0 1 0 —1
First period — none. Penalties — Wenatchee 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Wenatchee, Carey (McHugh, Remond), 1:10; 2. Kenai River, Stenehjem (Blessing, Lubanski), 7:41; 3. Wenatchee, Barber (Vetter, Kerr), 12:12. Penalties — Wenatchee 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Wenatchee, Barber (Saylor, Kerr), 10:03. Penalties — Wenatchee 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Wenatchee 11-13-7—31; Kenai River 8-6-4—18.
Goalies — Wenatchee, Nichols (18 shots, 17 saves); Kenai River, Severson (31 shots, 28 saves), Grunwald (0 shots, 0 saves).
Power plays — Wenatchee 0 for 3; Kenai River 0 for 5.
Wild 5, Brown Bears 2
Wenatchee 0 4 1 —5
Kenai River 2 0 0 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Hemsky (Lubanski, Blessing), 15:58; 2. Kenai River, Stenehjem (Murphy, Stefan), sh, 19:59. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Wenatchee, Cope (Lant, Kerr), 2:27; 4. Wenatchee, McHugh (Barber, Pauly), 9:49; 5. Wenatchee, Tafoya (Schmidbauer, Lant), 12:34; 6. Wenatchee, Rostenkowski (Johnson, Saylor), 13:23. Penalties — Wenatchee 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 7. Wenatchee, Barber (Saylor, Lant), en, 18:09.
Shots on goal — Wenatchee 9-13-7—29; Kenai River 9-5-9—23.
Goalies — Wenatchee, Nichols (23 shots, 21 saves); Kenai River, Severson (21 shots, 17 saves), Grunwald (7 shots, 7 saves).
Power plays — Wenatchee 0 for 3, Kenai River 0 for 5.