The Kenai River Brown Bears came from behind in the third period to secure two crucial points in the North American Hockey League playoff chase Saturday in Wichita Falls, Texas.
After getting outshot 16-4 in the second period and giving up three straight goals to go down 3-2, the Bears stormed back in the third period for a 5-3 victory over the Wildcats in front of 1,532 fans.
“I thought we showed some real good character being able to recover when our backs were against the wall and getting two points,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said.
The Bears (27-22-7) drew within one point of the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill and Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the chase for the final two playoff spots out of the Midwest Division.
Kenai River has 61 points and four games remaining — all against the league-leading Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Coulee Region has 62 points and five games left — three against the Minnesota Wilderness (second in the Midwest) and two against the Minnesota Magicians (sixth in the Midwest).
Wenatchee has 62 points and four games left — two against North-leading Port Huron (Mich.) and two against Aberdeen (S.D.), currently in second in the Central.
The Bears host the Ice Dogs on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“I think it is a great challenge for us,” Beauparlant said. “We have to have a solid game plan.
“I think they are by far the best team in the league from the net out.”
After losing Friday to the Wildcats 3-1 in front of 1,348, the Bears needed a win Saturday and came out playing like it.
The top line of Alec Butcher, Albin Karlsson and Sebastian Fuchs was on the ice for both first-period goals, one by Karlsson and the other by defenseman Gustav Berglund.
But Wichita Falls changed goalies in the first period and stormed back behind Chase Munroe in the second.
Will Vosejpka and Ben Kucera had the game tied just 2 minutes, 37 seconds, into the second period, then Kucera struck again with 1:32 left in the period for a 3-2 lead.
“They came with a lot of pressure early in the second,” Beauparlant said. “They were probably chewed out a bit by their coaching staff.
“They responded and we didn’t make the plays we were making in the first period. We got out of doing what was working, and the next thing you know it’s 2-2 very quickly.”
Between the second and third periods, Beauparlant said the coaching staff challenged players not on the top line to produce in the third period.
Just 1:09 in, Matt Rudin, assisted by Tommy Dierl and Jack Gessert, responded to tie the game. Dierl drove the puck to the net, and Rudin scored on the follow.
The top line also kept humming, as Karlsson and Butcher assisted on a goal by defenseman Ben Campbell for a 4-3 lead with 16:11 left in the game.
Then Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz, in his first series back after missing time due to a concussion, scored on a weird bounce with 11:20 left for a two-goal cushion.
Beauparlant then gave credit to goalie Kris Oldham, who had 35 saves, and the defense for closing the door.
“The goaltending was suspect on their end at times, and Oldy was good,” Beauparlant said. “He didn’t have a chance on a couple of them.”
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, Karlsson won the puck deep in the zone and got it to Fuchs, who found 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
Kenai River 0 1 0 —1
Wichita Falls 1 2 0 —3
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.
Brown Bears 5, Wildcats 3
Kenai River 2 0 3 —5
Wichita Falls 0 3 0 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Butcher), 2:54; 2. Kenai River, Berglund (Karlsson), pp, 16:01. Penalties — Wichita Falls 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. Wichita Falls, Vosejpka (Junda), 1:53; 4. Wichita Falls, Kucera (Koch), 2:37; 5. Wichita Falls, Kucera (Koritzinsky, Ledford), 18:28. Penalties — Kenai River 6 for 31:00; Wichita Falls 3 for 17:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Rudin (Dierl, Gessert), 1:09; 7. Kenai River, Campbell (Karlsson, Butcher), 3:49; 8. Kenai River, Zulkanycz (Loewenstein), 8:40. Penalties — Kenai River 4 for 8:00; Wichita Falls 5 for 18:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-4-9—20; Wichita Falls 11-16-11—38.
Goalies — Kenai River, Oldham (38 shots, 35 saves); Wichita Falls, Zevnik (4 shots, 2 saves), Munroe (16 shots, 13 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 5; Wichita Falls 0 for 5.