The Kenai River Brown Bears topped the host Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 6-1 on Friday and 3-2 on Saturday to pick up their 10th point in their last six games.
Matt Seidel and Brad LeLievre led the Friday effort with two goals apiece. Saturday, Alex Jackstadt set up a power-play goal and also had the game-winner.
Kenai River is now 18-9-6, solidly in third place in the North American Hockey League West Division.
The Bears’ current string of points has come immediately after a five-game losing streak. The last game in that skid was a 3-2 home loss to the Janesville (Wis.) Jets in which the Bears outshot the opposition 52-23.
After that game, Bears coach Oliver David made the squad skate for an additional 45 minutes. At the time, it was easy to question the decision of extra work for a short-handed team dealing with injury and illness.
It’s pretty hard to question that decision now.
“You can’t do those sorts of things if you don’t honestly have the pulse of the team,” David said. “There is no way that anyone, anyone, not involved with the team could possibly have the pulse of the team.
“It’s hard enough for me, the head coach, the 15-hour-a-day guy, the babysitter, big brother, dad, whatever label you want to put on it.”
David admitted the extra skate was a tough decision.
“I’ve never skated a team that played as hard as they did in that Janesville loss,” David said.
But the coach said something had to change, and that effort wasn’t the problem. The Bears outshot the opposition in every game during the five-game skid, and lost four of those five games by one goal.
“Since the beginning of the season, we’ve talked about effort as the No. 1 objective,” David said. “For five straight games, effort proved not to be enough so we skated and everybody took it like a man.
“Everybody knew what was going on. People who stayed at the rink saw the guys pushing really hard. They skated for 45 minutes and some guys sprinted the entire time. I think they learned a little about themselves and the guys standing next to them.”
The Bears topped the Jets in a shootout the next night, took four points in a three-game series at West Division leader Wenatchee (Wash.), and then rolled past the Monsters on Friday and Saturday.
Kenai River scored the first six goals of the game Friday. It was the first time the Bears had scored five goals or more in regulation since Dec. 28.
Seidel scored the lone goal of the first period and added a third-period tally.
“Seidel was awarded the player of the game tonight, really for his outstanding defensive effort,” David said. “When a guy like Matt Seidel contributes on defense, you wouldn’t believe how excited everybody gets on the bench.
“When your most genetically gifted player, he’s 6-3 at 18 years old, contributes in all three zones, in every situation on the ice, it gets teammates excited.”
After Mikhail Bushinski put the Bears up 2-0 in the second period, LeLievre scored twice before the close of the period on assists from linemates Conor Deal and Bryan Hodges.
“LeLievre is a big-time go-getter,” David said. “He is the type of player I most enjoy. He’s one of those players that just hunts pucks, plays on the edge, is not afraid of anything, and also has a good skill set.”
David also pointed out that LeLievre still has four years of eligibility in junior hockey. The coach said LeLievre’s second goal was a beauty, a ripped wrister on the glove side after just crossing the blue line.
Alec Butcher also scored in the third period for the Bears.
Quinton Neville, a 6-2 defensemen, made his debut for the Brown Bears. David said the team needed a defenseman because Ryan Walker was suspended for Friday’s game, and Neville did a solid job.
The coach also said goalie Marcus Zelzer, another find of director of player personnel Nick Shackford, also was solid in making 28 saves. Zelzer has played in all seven games since he has been acquired.
Saturday, he improved to 4-1-2 with a 1.95 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
In other notes from Friday, Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz took an elbow to the head. David said he will most likely be held out for the weekend for precautionary purposes. Also, captain Zac Lazzaro played his 100th game for the Bears on Friday, while Chris Nuth played his 101st.
Saturday, Butcher and Lazzaro scored in the first period before Fresno’s Justin Plate cut the gap to 2-1 with a goal in the second period.
David said the Bears played excellent defense in the third, not allowing a shot for the first half of the period and outshooting Fresno 10-2 in the frame.
Jackstadt scored with 9:20 left for a 3-1 lead, before Fresno’s Kyle Buffardi scored with 6:26 left.
Zelzer made 11 saves for the Bears, while Division I commit Tomas Sholl had 29 saves for Fresno.
“Sholl played very soundly as he always does,” David said. “We had two breakaways to start the second period that he stopped. We also hit two or three pipes. He was outstanding.”
But David said Zelzer and the Bears were up to the task.
“It was a team defensive effort,” he said. “We were able to break up most of their attacks before they got to the net.”
David said Chris Nuth, Hodges, LeLievre and Seidel did a great job on defense.
The Monsters and Bears drop the puck at 9 a.m. AST today.
Brown Bears 6, Monsters 1
Kenai River 1 3 2 —6
Fresno 0 0 1 —1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Seidel (Vance), 19:11. Penalties — Kenai River 4 for 11:00, Fresno 4 for 11:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Bushinski (Davidson, Lazzaro), pp, 12:18; 3. Kenai River, LeLievre (Deal, Hodges), 15:59; 4. Kenai River, LeLievre (Deal, Hodges), 18:42. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fresno 5 for 21:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Seidel (Nuth, Vance), 5:07; 6. Kenai River, Butcher (Karlsson, Jackstadt), 7:10; 7. Fresno, Salituro (Kalbak, Bittner), 10:26. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-13-7—27; Fresno 6-7-16—29.
Goalies — Kenai River, Zelzer (29 shots, 28 saves); Fresno, Haight (29 shots, 19 saves), Sholl (2 shots, 2 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 4; Fresno 0 for 3.
Brown Bears 3, Monsters 2
Kenai River 2 0 1 —3
Fresno 0 1 1 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Butcher (Jackstadt, Seidel), pp, 10:30; 2. Kenai River, Lazzaro (un), 15:27. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fresno 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Fresno, Plate (Andersen, McDowell), 3:02. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Jackstadt (Butcher, Karlsson), 10:40; 5. Fresno, Buffardi (Snyder, Plate), 13:34.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 13-9-10—32; Fresno 3-8-2—13.
Goalies — Kenai River, Zelzer (13 shots, 11 saves); Fresno, Sholl (32 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 2; Fresno 0 for 2.