The Kenai River Brown Bears were swept by the host Austin (Minn.) Bruins on Friday and Saturday in North American Hockey League play.
The Bears lost 5-3 on Friday to halt an eight-game winning streak, then fell 3-1 on Saturday.
The two losses knock Kenai River out of first place in the Midwest Division. The Minnesota Wilderness topped the Soo (Mich.) Eagles 3-0 to move to 11-2-3, good for 25 points. The Bears stay in second place at 12-5, good for 24 points.
Austin improves to 12-3 and continues to lead the Central Division.
The two-game series between two of the NAHL’s top teams had the attention of more than fans.
“It was very heavily scouted, with six or seven draft eligible kids that are (1996 birthdates),” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “There were scouts from the National Hockey League and the collegiate ranks, which is always exciting for the guys, but at the same time they know they are still there to play.”
Friday, the late-game magic finally ran dry for the Brown Bears.
In five of their eight wins during the winning streak, the Bears scored the game-winning goal in the final two minutes of the game, or in overtime or the shootout.
In front of 1,113, the Bears faced a 4-1 deficit to start the third period and cut it to 4-3 before an empty-net goal by Jake Arroyo with 21 seconds left sealed the deal.
“It was a well-played hockey game,” Beauparlant said. “They will come up and play us, but these are two teams that could see each other later in the season.”
Austin took the lead 4:52 in, when Guillaume Leclerc scored the first of his two goals.
“I thought we came out a little sluggish,” Beauparlant said. “We got behind the eight-ball and down 1-0 a little bit, but we rebounded and had a good couple of shifts to swing the momentum in our favor.”
With 13:35 remaining in the first, Albin Karlsson tied it on an assist from Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz.
Karlsson, who has the team’s lone Division I commitment, also had an assist and now has eight points in his last four games.
Niagara University signed Karlsson early last season, and Beauparlant said Karlsson is realizing the potential that Niagara saw.
“He’s turned into a complete hockey player,” Beauparlant said. “He’s a warrior that wants to win so badly.
“He makes things happen with his speed and he has learned to play greedier and take more pucks to the net.”
The Kenai River bench boss said his team came out fine in the second period, but former Bears player Lucas Kohls scored just over five minutes in.
Beauparlant said the goal threw his team off.
“We got away from what works for us,” he said. “That’s working hard, keeping the game simple, not making turnovers and playing good defense.”
The Bruins outshot the Bears 12-4 in the period and added goals by Drew Anderson and Leclerc to take the three-goal advantage into the third.
“In the third, we executed our forecheck, moved the puck quickly, created pressure in the right area and forced some turnovers,” Beauparlant said. “That allowed us to climb back in the game.”
With 12:14 to play, Christian Luiten scored, assisted by Karlsson.
With 4:53 left, Frankie Spellman punctuated a fine performance with a goal assisted by Nathan Colwell.
“He brings an element that not too many bring for us,” Beauparlant said of Spellman, listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds. “He brings size and farm-boy strength. He’s put together. He’s a big boy who’s difficult to move.”
The Bears had a power play with 4:12 left, then Beauparlant said they had several chances with the extra attacker.
“Lady Luck was not on our side tonight,” Beauparlant said. “We can’t keep tempting fate. It came back to bite us tonight.”
Zach Quinn made 26 saves for the Bears, while Nicholas Lehr had 21 saves for the Bruins.
“It was an average night for Zach in net,” Beauparlant said. “For the first time, he gave up a questionable goal.
“I know he was upset. He’ll be in net tomorrow night — that’s how much confidence we have in him.”
Veteran defensemen Judd Loewenstein was serving the third game of a three-game suspension, and veteran defenseman Jake Bushey was still in the United States Hockey League.
That put a lot of pressure on the Bears’ young defensemen against a team featuring Jay Dickman, one of the league’s top scorers. Dickman had an assist.
“Our younger guys rose to the challenge against a veteran team that was right there last year and won the (NAHL) Showcase with Fairbanks this year,” Beauparlant said.
Saturday in front of 1,417, the Bears came out strong. Karlsson, assisted by Alec Butcher and Sebastian Fuchs, had a power-play goal to give the Bears the lead after one period.
“We had the opportunity for more than one goal,” Beauparlant said of the first period. “We didn’t capitalize and being a veteran team, they stayed the course and didn’t get rattled.”
Kohls and Simon Petersson scored in the second period for a 2-1 lead. In the second period, Kenai River had six penalties for 15 minutes, while Austin had seven for 17:00.
“We didn’t control our emotions to an extent,” Beauparlant said. “That’s on me as the head coach to make sure they stay focused.”
In the third period, the Bears pressed for the equalizer, and got caught on a short-handed goal by Josh Bretner with 10:10 to play.
“They are a good hockey team and a veteran hockey team,” Beauparlant said. “That’s now two weekends we’ve been swept by veteran hockey clubs.”
The other team to do the trick, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, hosts the Brown Bears on Friday and Saturday.
“This is the first time the organization was in Austin,” Beauparlant said. “It’s very similar to Fairbanks. It’s loud and a small building.”
Beauparlant said Brad LeLievere was solid at forward on Saturday, while Sam Bratten fought to stick up for a teammate.
He also said Quinn bounced back with 27 saves, only yielding goals that nothing could be done about.
Lehr had 22 saves for Austin.
Bruins 5, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 1 0 2 —3
Austin 1 3 1 —5
First period — 1. Austin, Leclerc (Dodd, Manley), 4:52; 2. Kenai River, Karlsson (Zulkanycz), 6:25. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 7:00; Austin 3 for 9:00.
Second period — 3. Austin, Kohls (Leclerc), 5:02; 4. Austin, Anderson (Nelson, Dickman), 11:20; 5. Austin, Leclerc (Bretner, Petersson), 17:28. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Austin 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Luiten (Karlsson), 7:46; 7. Kenai River, Spellman (Colwell), 15:07; 8. Austin, Arroyo (un.), en, 19:39.
Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Austin 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 6-4-14—24; Austin 11-12-8—31.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (30 shots, 26 saves); Austin, Lehr (24 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 4; Austin 0 for 3.
Bruins 3, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 1 0 0 —1
Austin 0 2 1 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Butcher, Stefan), pp, 3:28. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Austin 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Austin, Kohls (Sanford), 13:36; 3. Austin, Petersson (Dickman), pp, 17:07. Penalties — Kenai River 6 for 15:00; Austin 7 for 17:00.
Third period — 4. Austin, Bretner (Dickman), sh, 9:50. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 14:00; Austin 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 8-9-6—23; Austin 11-9-10—30.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (30 shots, 27 saves); Austin, Lehr (23 shots, 22 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 6; Austin 1 for 5.