By JEFF HELMINIAK
In the North American Hockey League, where seven of the 11 games played Friday were decided by a goal, there is a fine line between victory and defeat.
Nobody has walked that line more early in the season at the Soldotna Sports Center than Brown Bears rookie defenseman Tyler Andrews.
Andrews, who is from Anchorage, scored with two seconds left in the game to give Kenai River a 3-2 victory over the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill in front of 818 fans.
The Bears, 6-3 overall and winners of six of their last seven, take over second in the Midwest Division. The Chill (5-2) fall into a tie for third. The same two teams play tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the sports center.
Friday’s plot was remarkably similar to the Bears’ second home game of the season, a 5-4 loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Sept. 14.
In that game, the score was tied 4-4 when the Bears went on the power play for the last four minutes of the game, but the wrong play from Andrews led to a short-handed goal.
“Andy learned from his last experience against Fairbanks to just make the simple play and move the puck to the net,” Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said.
Friday, the game was knotted at 2 with two minutes to play when Coulee’s Cam Beck was booked for charging.
The power-play group of Andrews, Jacob Bushey, Alec Butcher, Sebastian Fuchs and Albin Karlsson kept the puck in the zone for 1:58 before Butcher found Andrews in the left faceoff circle.
“He threw it out to me and I looked back door, but it wasn’t open,” Andrews said. “I saw Bushey driving the net back door so I threw it far pad and it got through.
“I think it went five-hole.”
The defenseman said the puck somehow go through Fuchs and a Coulee player standing right in front of him.
While it appeared Andrews showed remarkable poise with the clock screaming down, he disabused that notion.
“I knew there wasn’t much time left, but I didn’t know there were only a few seconds left,” Andrews said.
Andrews also took the second-most important action of the power play.
Midway through the man advantage, Coulee possessed the puck in the middle of the zone and had the chance to clear it. Instead, the Coulee player tried to beat Andrews for a breakaway.
Andrews poked the puck away and the Bears kept possession. If he’d missed, only goalie Zach Quinn stood between the Bears and another backbreaking shortie.
“I didn’t realize until after I poked the puck away that I was the last man back,” Andrews said.
The missed clearance gnawed at Chill coach AJ Degenhardt after the game.
“That’s just situational smarts,” Degenhardt said. “It’s early in the season.
“In an ideal world, the puck gets out of the zone and we’re going to overtime right now.”
The game matched a Brown Bears squad that likes to pressure the puck with a Chill squad that was content to limit shots on defense and seize opportunities when the Bears overextended themselves.
The Bears were able to possess the puck for lengthy periods in Coulee’s zone, but the Chill took 20 shots to Kenai River’s 19.
“They did a good job defensively of packing it in,” Beauparlant said. “We needed to get the puck to the net, and we didn’t start doing that until the third period.”
The Bears took the lead in the first when Fuchs scored the first of two goals on the night. He fired a shot that bounced off a Coulee defender and went right back to Fuchs, leaving a clear path to goal.
In the second, the Chill used special teams to get back in the game. On the power play, the Bears lost a battle for the puck at the blue line, leading to a two-on-one in which Jesse Tredinnick touched home an Eddie Matsushima assist.
The Bears took the lead again with 9:51 in the second. Coulee had an odd-man rush, but turned the puck over, leading to a three-on-one featuring the Bears’ top line. Karlsson to Butcher to Fuchs and it was 2-1.
“I love playing with those guys,” said Fuchs, who now has five goals and 10 points. “It’s awesome. They are both very skilled with the puck.”
But with 7:13 left in the second, Coulee tied it on a Gordon Wells power-play goal. The Chill kept possession for the first minute of the advantage.
“We did a good job on the power play,” Degenhardt said. “We work on it quite a bit. We moved the puck well and created a lot of good shots.”
The Chill had two more power plays before the end of the second, and Quinn did some of the finest work of his 18-save effort.
“Our goalie has to be our best penalty killer,” Beauparlant said. “At the end of the second period, he made the saves he had to make to keep us in the game.”
Beauparlant, who gave kudos to the efforts of defenseman Austin Chavez and forward Frankie Spellman, said his team came out and played well in the third period. Before Andrews’ goal, the best chance at victory came when Fuchs was within a clanked pipe of a hat trick with 10:40 left.
“I was 100 percent sure (it was going in),” Fuchs said. “It hit the blocker, then it hit the post and went out.
“I didn’t get the hat trick, but we did get the win.”
Brown Bears 3, Chill 2
Coulee Region 0 2 0 —2
Kenai River 1 1 1 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Fuchs (Karlsson, Loewenstein), 15:08. Penalties — Coulee 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Coulee, Tredinnick (Matsushima, Regnart), sh, 7:31; 3. Kenai River, Fuchs (Butcher, Karlsson), 10:09; 4. Coulee, Wells (McGing, Terdinnick), pp, 12:47. Penalties — Coulee 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Andrews (Butcher, Bushey), pp, 19:58. Penalties — Coulee 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Coulee 9-8-3—20; Kenai River 8-3-8—19.
Goalies — Coulee, Cates (19 shots, 16 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (20 shots, 18 saves).
Power plays — Coulee 1 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 4.