Big ice. Small margins of victory.
The Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats picked up a pair of victories over the Kenai River Brown Bears at the Olympic-sized Soldotna Regional Sports Complex ice that is yielding one barnburner after another.
The Wildcats won 3-2 on Friday and 2-1 in a shootout on Saturday in front of 1,073 fans.
The Bears have played seven one-goal games in eight home contests. The deciding goal has been scored after the five-minute mark of the third period in six of those games.
“I thought it was a good hockey game again,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “(Wildcats) coach (Paul) Baxter was saying right after the game that it was a good weekend of hockey.
“It was clean and hard-fought.”
The Wildcats are 13-6-3 and tied for second in the North American Hockey League South Division, while the Bears are 12-8-1 and in third in the Midwest. Kenai River snapped a streak of five games without a point Saturday.
Saturday, the Wildcats took a 1-0 lead in the first period when Stan Sojka scored. But Kenai River goalie Kris Oldham would keep the Wildcats off the board through regulation and overtime, making 38 saves.
Beauparlant said the best line through all three periods was Tommy Dierl, Frankie Spellman and Sam Bratten.
The Bears finally solved Wichita goalie Chase Munroe (38 saves) with just 1:10 to play. Jake Bushey hit Jacob Davidson in the middle of the ice. Davidson shot, and Nathan Colwell tapped in the rebound for the power-play goal.
“Overall, I’m pleased with the effort and proud of the way the guys competed, but it still wasn’t good enough,” Beauparlant said. “We’ve got to find goal-scoring in the short term or we’re in trouble in the long term.”
Wichita Falls’ Tyler Ledford was the only player to score in the shootout, sending the Bears to their first shootout loss in five tries.
The Bears had won four straight one-goal, home games coming into Friday, but Ben Kucera scored with 40.9 seconds to play in the game to get the Wildcats a 3-2 win over the Bears in front of 863 fans.
“It was a character win,” said head coach Paul Baxter, whose Wildcats lost two lopsided games in Soldotna last season. “Kenai has a very good team. They’ve proven that so far this year.”
Kucera’s deciding goal came on a three-on-one. Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said there was improper rotation on the forecheck, perhaps due to desire to get the winning goal.
When Wichita Falls was able to chip the puck around a pinching defenseman, the game-winning rush was on.
“We play an aggressive style, that’s how we like to go,” Beauparlant said. “We’re going to give up situations like that sometimes.”
As would be expected for a team on a losing streak coming off a seven-game road trip, the Bears came out firing in the first period, outshooting the Wildcats 18-10.
Just 4 minutes, 2 seconds, into the contest, Nathan Colwell scored on a rebound off of a Jacob Davidson shot for a 1-0 lead.
“Wichita Falls hung in there and weathered the storm,” Beauparlant said.
The period ended tied due to a short-handed goal by the Wildcats. Wichita Falls turned a face-off victory into a three-on-two, or Baxter even said it was a four-on-two. Kyle Bauman dumped the puck to Sam Piazza in the slot for the goal.
The lone goal of the second period was the type that only happens on a protracted losing streak.
Alfred Johansson flung the puck at the net from the blue line. There were no Wildcats around the net, but goalie Zach Quinn was screened by one of his own players and the puck found its way into the cage.
“I know that one counts,” said a smiling Baxter when asked what he thought of the goal. “If you direct the puck at the net, it has a chance of going in. If you don’t put the puck on net, it has no chance of going in.”
With 11:05 left in the second, the Wildcats’ Kristaps Bazevics took a five-minute major for cross-checking. The Bears could not score on the power play, and Beauparlant said that was a big turning point in the game.
“We may have given up two power-play goals, but I thought our penalty kill was pretty good tonight,” said Baxter, whose squad entered the game with the third-best kill in the league.
The second Bears power-play goal came just 38 seconds into the third period. It was similar to the first, with Jack Gessert putting in the rebound off of a Jake Bushey shot.
Beauparlant said those are the types of power-play goals the Bears need to score more often.
“I think sometimes we’re still waiting too much for the perfect play,” he said.
Chase Munroe had 38 saves for the Wildcats, while Quinn stopped 29 for the Brown Bears.
“We worked hard and for the most part executed what we wanted to do,” Beauparlant said. “The only way we are going to get out of this is to keep working hard.”
The Bears host the Midwest-leading Minnesota Wilderness for three games, starting Thursday at 7 p.m.
Wildcats 3, Brown Bears 2
Wichita Falls 1 1 1 —3
Kenai River 1 0 1 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Colwell (Davidson, Karlsson), pp, 4:02; 2. Wichita Falls, Piazza (Bauman), sh, 11:54. Penalties — Wichita Falls 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 3. Wichita Falls, Johansson (Junda, Van Arkel), 7:25. Penalties — Wichita Falls 2 for 7:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai River, Gessert (Bushey, Fuchs), pp, 0:38; 5. Wichita Falls, Kucera (Townsend), 19:20. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Wichita Falls 10-12-10—32; Kenai River 18-8-14—40.
Goalies — Wichita Falls, Chase Munroe (40 shots, 38 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (32 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Wichita Falls 0 for 2; Kenai River 1 for 4.
Wildcats 2, Brown Bears 1, SO
Wichita Falls 1 0 0 0 1 —2
Kenai River 0 0 1 0 0 —1
First period — 1. Wichita Falls, Sojka (Reisinger), 11:18. Penalties — Wichita Falls 1 for 2:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Wichita Falls 2 for 7:00; Kenai River 2 for 7:00.
Third period — 2. Kenai River, Colwell (Davidson, Bushey), pp, 18:50. Penalties — Wichita Falls 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — none.
Shootout — Wichita Falls 1 (Junda NG, Kucera NG, Ledford G, Bauman NG, Piazza NG); Kenai River 0 (Gessert NG, Karlsson NG, Fuchs NG, Butcher NG, Purcell NG).
Shots on goal — Wichita Falls 14-12-8-3—37; Kenai River 10-15-12-2—39.
Goalies — Wichita Falls, Munroe (39 shots, 38 saves); Kenai River, Oldham (37 shots, 36 saves).
Power plays — Wichita Falls 0 for 2; Kenai River 1 for 5.