When Kenai River and Wenatchee (Wash.) face each other in the North American Hockey League, it’s bound to get wild, and Thursday night was no different as the Brown Bears kicked off a three-game series with the Wild at the Soldotna Sports Center with a 3-0 victory.
Bears goalie Evan McCarthy performed admirably under pressure, stopping all 36 shots sent his way, including a crucial penalty shot Wenatchee was awarded with 11 minutes, 26 seconds, left in the game.
“Obviously it’s a bit of adversity with the penalty shot, but it’s good to get it,” McCarthy said. “I bit on the shot. He faked me out and pulled it, and somehow I was able to get my leg behind me and I got it.”
Noah Nelson from the Wild squared up against McCarthy and tried to slip the puck in on the left crease, but to no avail.
“It’s great, I think every game I’m in is building confidence and it’s good to get in that rhythm after not playing some games to playing every single game,” he said. “I think my confidence gets better with every shot and every opportunity to play.”
Brown Bears assistant coach Nick Shackford was also complimentary of McCarthy’s play, saying that out of the 36 saved shots, 22 of those were scoring chances, meaning there was a legitimate chance to score.
“He’s jumped into a spot where the pressure is insurmountable, with what he’s going through,” Shackford said. “For him to step up like he did, it shows he can perform in any game, and the confidence in goaltending is very high, and that’s very good. That’s what you need going into the playoffs.”
Thursday’s win improves Kenai River’s season record to 24-24-6, leaving them still solidly in third place in the NAHL West Division.
Although the Bears came through with the shutout, Wenatchee ended up outshooting Kenai River 36-29, including 15-10 in the first period and 13-7 in the second.
The Bears got off to a quick start in the first period with goals from Dylan Meier and Judd Loewenstein. It was Loewenstein’s first goal of the season. He put the Bears up by two when he received the puck off a rebound in front of Wenatchee’s net.
In addition to the two goals, Kenai River’s Chris Nuth and Wenatchee’s David Mead threw down the gloves midway through the first period to the delight of the fans.
The second period featured no scoring but the fights were plenty. Loewenstein and Wenatchee’s Nelson sparred and Mikhail Bushinski and Wenatchee’s Jono Davis threw down the fisticuffs, all within a minute of each other. The confrontation earned Davis, Wenatchee’s top scorer, an ejection.
In the third period, Wenatchee pulled goalie Robert Nichols with just over a minute and a half remaining, and Matt Seidel took advantage by breaking through the lines and scoring on an empty net with 1:19 left to put the game out of reach. The goal was Seidel’s 18th of the year.
The loss was especially disheartening for Wenatchee, as the Wild now lead the NAHL West division standings by a single point over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs — 78 to 77. The Ice Dogs claimed a 2-1 win over Fresno (Calif.) on Thursday night at home to close the gap, and Wenatchee coach Bliss Littler knows that this 3-game series with Kenai River is crucial, saying that his team is not in “playoff mode” like the Bears seem to be.
“It’s one of those things, it’s one of those sayings that goes, ‘More games are lost than won’, and when we made a mistake, they scored,” Littler said. “That first period, they made us pay for our mistakes, and we had three breakaways and we didn’t even sniff the net on any of them.
“We still think it’s the middle of November, and we’re paying the price right now.”
Wenatchee, losers of five straight, and Kenai River, winners of three of four, drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday.
Brown Bears 3, Wild 0
Kenai River 2 0 1 —3
Wenatchee 0 0 0 —0
1st period — 1. Kenai River, Meier (Davidson), 8:45; 2. Kenai River, Loewenstein (Jackstadt, Zulkanycz), 13:10. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 7:00; Wenatchee 1 for 5:00.
2nd period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 10:00; Wenatchee 6 for 26:00.
3rd period — 3. Kenai River, Seidel (unassisted), empty net, 18:41. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Wenatchee 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 10-7-12—29; Wenatchee 15-13-8—36.
Goalies — Kenai River, McCarthy (36 shots, 36 saves); Wenatchee, Nichols (28 shots, 26 saves).