The Kenai River Brown Bears are coming home riding a four-game winning streak that has gotten them back to .500 on the season.
The Bears defeated the host Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 3-2 on Saturday for their 12th point in their last seven games, including 10 points in the just-concluded six-game road trip.
“Walking in today, we were on a streak and I knew we were going to win,” Kenai assistant Nick Shackford said. “The players in the locker room were dialed in and focused.
“We’ve seen a paradigm shift in the season. The tide has turned and we’re ready to go.”
The current upswing has the Bears solidly in third place in the North American Hockey League West Division. Wenatchee (Wash.) is in first place with 66 points, while Fairbanks is in second with 60. Kenai River, at 19-19-6, is in third with 44, while Fresno is last with 30.
The Bears will not leave Alaska for the rest of the regular season. Kenai River has 12 games at home, and four in Fairbanks. The Bears host the Ice Dogs at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday’s game started at 10:15 a.m. in California, and Shackford said the Bears felt the early start time after the long road trip.
“We didn’t have the jump we had the last two nights, but we played some very good hockey and we executed very well,” Shackford said.
Fresno’s Justin Plate scored the lone goal of the first period as the Monsters looked to avoid the three-game sweep.
The Bears then ran off the next three goals of the game. With 16:14 left in the second period, Chris Nuth scored on assists from Mikhail Bushinski and Zac Lazzaro. Then with 13:06 left in the period, Alex Jackstadt scored the first of his two goals in the game on assists from Albin Karlsson and Alec Butcher.
The trio would also team up on a goal just 48 seconds into the third period for a 3-1 lead.
“They’ve been dominant over the last six games,” Shackford said. “They’ve been great.”
At least two members of the line have been in on scoring plays seven times in the last four games. Jackstadt now has 16 goals and is one behind team leader Matt Seidel.
Dan Sherer scored a short-handed goal for Fresno with 48 seconds left, but Kenai River closed out the victory.
“That was after a series of penalties and things were getting a bit chippy,” Shackford said of the goal. “I think we just lost focus on the bench.”
Marcus Zelzer made 26 saves for the victory, while Macauley Haight had 21 saves in the loss. Zelzer is now 5-1-2 for the Bears since coming to the team in a trade.
“Since we’ve acquired him, he gets better and better,” Shackford said. “Some of the saves he has made have been unbelievable and kept us in the game.”
The assistant said everything has improved on this road trip, from scoring, to defensive zone coverage, to the power play.
“We’ve learned how to win,” Shackford said. “This point in the season is a good time to peak.”
Brown Bears 3, Monsters 2
Kenai River 0 2 1 —3
Fresno 1 0 1 —2
First period — 1. Fresno, Plate (Janco, Sisk), 17:16. Penalties — Fresno 1 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Nuth (Bushinski, Lazzaro), 3:44; 3. Kenai River, Jackstadt (Karlsson, Butcher), pp, 6:54. Penalties — Fresno 3 for 17:00; Kenai River 1 for 5:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Jackstadt (Butcher, Karlsson), 0:48; 5. Fresno, Sherer (Janco, Shipstad), sh, 19:12. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 14:00; Fresno 5 for 26:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 8-12-4—24; Fresno 9-11-8—28.
Goalies — Kenai River, Zelzer (28 shots, 26 saves); Fresno, Haight (24 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 4; Fresno 0 for 1.