The Kenai River Brown Bears lost a valuable opportunity to make up ground in the playoff chase, falling 3-1 to the host Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats on Friday in front of 1,348.
The Bears are chasing the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild for the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.
The Wild were idle Friday, while the Chill lost 3-1 to the Minnesota Wilderness.
The Bears (26-22-7) remain three points behind the Wild and Chill. Kenai River has five games left, the Chill have six games left and the Wild have four games left.
The Bears play the Wildcats again Saturday at 4:05 p.m. ADT.
"I just told the guys tomorrow becomes more of a must-win game," Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. "We can't keep relying on other teams to keep beating the teams in front of us."
Beauparlant did not get the total team effort for which he was looking Friday.
"I don't think we had enough guys give a full, 60-minute effort," Beauparlant said. "We didn't have all 20 guys pushing in the same direction and when that happens we're an average hockey team."
Beauparlant said two turnovers in the gray area, or the area 5 feet from the blue line, cost his team.
The first led to the only goal of the first period, by the Wildcats' Rudy Jonda.
In the second period, Wichita Falls took a 2-0 lead at the 11:26 mark by earning a two-on-one off a faceoff. Josh Haverstrom got the tally.
With 6:11 left in the second period, Albin Karlsson won the puck deep in the zone and got it to Sebastian Fuchs, who found Alec Butcher for the goal.
But another turnover in the gray area set up a Tyler Ledford goal with 4:36 left in the second period.
"We didn't take care of the puck and secure the puck twice tonight in the gray areas, and it cost us," Beauparlant said.
The Bears outshot the Wildcats 13-4 in the third period en route to a 31-29 advantage in the game, but could not cut into the lead.
Kenai River had two goals called back in the third period. The first came on a power play, when Butcher knocked in a shot, but it was ruled the net was off before the goal went in.
On the second, the Bears' RJ Salvato blocked a shot and earned a breakaway. Frankie Spellman put in the rebound, but the referee ruled that he was in the process of blowing the whistle.
"We have to bear down earlier in the game so we don't have to rely on those types of judgement calls," Beauparlant said.
Beauparlant said the line of Salvato, Spellman and Jacob Wolter continues to be very good after being put together last weekend.
Wildcats 3, Brown Bears 1
First period — 1. Wichita Falls, Junda (Vosejpka, Koch), 12:32. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 8:00; Wichita Falls 3 for 8:00.
Second period — 2. Wichita Falls, Haverstrom (Bauman), 8:34; 3. Kenai River, Butcher (Karlsson, Fuchs), 13:49; 4. Wichita Falls, Ledford (Staub), 15:24. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Wichita Falls 1 for 2:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Wichita Falls 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 11-7-13—31; Wichita Falls 9-16-4—29.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (29 shots, 26 saves); Wichita Falls, Munroe (31 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 5; Wichita Falls 0 for 4.