Looking to avoid a weekend sweep at home, the Kenai River Brown Bears took time out with 23.2 seconds left on the clock and down a goal to the Bismarck (North Dakota) Bobcats. After a messy faceoff, Kenai River’s Gil Garcia took one last desperation shot with seconds left in the game.
Bobcats goaltender Ryan Ullan deflected the strike in what Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich called a microcosm of the night.
“Gil has a great shot,” Petrich said. “When when he gets a puck on his stick, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I’ll take it.”
In the end, Bismarck made off with a 3-2 victory Saturday to grab the weekend sweep at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, following up a lopsided 6-1 win Friday.
The Bobcats are 11-8-2-0 and tied for first place in the North American Hockey League Central Division, while the Bears are 8-12-1-0 and tied for fifth in the Midwest Division with Coulee Region (Wisconsin). Kenai River owns the tiebreaker based on wins.
Ty Enns scored twice for the Bobcats in his return from a one-game suspension. Enns leads the team with 21 points, but was benched Friday for two misconduct charges in a game last Saturday in Fairbanks.
Luke Radetic and David Kaplan scored for the Bears, but the late pressure Kenai River put on Bismarck couldn’t overcome two second-period goals by the Bobcats.
“It sucks to lose, we don’t ilke it, but we need to trust the process,” Petrich said. “I liked the way the team played tonight.”
Kenai River dropped to 0-4 against their nonconference opponents this year.
After the Bobcats continued the Friday woes of the Brown Bears with a 6-1 victory at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, about the only entity Petrich felt comfortable absolving of blame was the crowd of 678.
“It’s not the fans,” he said. “We’ve had great crowds on Friday. I feel bad for the fans.”
Players. Coaches. Strategy. Petrich said all those things need to be under review as the Bears have now been outscored 25-7 in the four Friday contests in two-game series on the current 13-game homestand. Kenai River came back to win the first three Saturday contests, but this weekend finished differently.
“It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Petrich said. “We changed everything this week. It’s on the guys in that locker room to try and figure out how to play on Friday.
“It’s not like we haven’t had success in the league. We’ve got a good team with a good core.”
Petrich said he thinks he has the X’s and O’s right. Some key points in his pregame speech did not manifest themselves on the ice. But he’s not letting himself off the hook either.
“Maybe I’m off,” he said. “We can’t give up this many goals on Friday night. We can’t count on coming back and winning on Saturday.”
Saturday’s game was tight, continuing the trend of narrow Saturday games, but the result was different.
The Bobcats took a 1-0 lead in the first period of play. Moments after the Bears had a stellar shot on goal denied with an even more stellar glove save by Ryan Ullan, Kenai River found trouble down on their end of the ice. Bismarck won a faceoff from the left circle and the puck squirted out to Ty Enns, who slapped the puck in from long range to score and put the Bobcats up 1-0.
Kenai River wrapped up the opening period on a high, staving off several shots on a Bismarck power play, helping to set up an early goal in the second.
An early penalty doomed Bismarck seconds into the second period, allowing Luke Radetic to score 25 seconds into the power play on a long range snipe, evening the tally at 1 apiece.
The good vibes didn’t last long. It took 69 seconds for the Bobcats to retake the lead on another long range score, this one from Vescio from the right edge that soared past Enright’s left shoulder. Enright finished the night with 29 saves.
The Bobcats went up 3-1 midway through the period just seconds after Kenai River killed off a penalty. The Bears killed off another penalty with no harm, then got their opportunity on a late power play. Kenai River failed to pressure Bismarck much on the power play and settled with just a few late shots on goal.
Kenai River came out aggressive in the third period with several shots on goal, but a power play opportunity was nullified just nine seconds into it with a slashing call charged to Michael Spethmann, creating a 4-on-4 show.
After killing off another Bobcats power play, the Bears caught a break with 6:42 to go when Kaplan deflected a shot from Cam McDonald from the left faceoff circle to score, closing the deficit to 3-2.
Petrich said the message to his crew after the Kaplan goal was simple.
“We go,” he said. “We just do everything to put the puck in.”
Kenai River turned up the pressure in the final minutes but Ullan stood tall to record the win. Overall in the third period, the Bears outshot the Bobcats 11-6, and the final faceoff with 23 seconds left had Petrich feeling indifferent.
“We needed to win that faceoff, and it didn’t turn out as well as we liked,” he said. “Once they get the puck into the boards and the corner, it’s tough to get it back.”
Friday, Petrich said his team came out ready to play. But that changed when, 4 minutes, 29 seconds, into the game, Grant Johnson started his two-goal, two-assist night by collecting a shot caught up in traffic in the front of the net and beating Kenai goalie Artur Pavliukov.
Johnson, an 18-year-old committed to Division I Northern Michigan University, now has five goals and 13 assists in 20 games.
“He had a good stick and was very urgent,” Bobcats assistant Garrett Roth said. “When he has a little time and space, he can break guys down. He showed his vision on the backdoor pass on the first power play.”
The pass went to Jared Resseguie for a 2-0 lead 6:45 into the game, then the Bears got caught puck-watching with 6:44 left in the first and Cooper Haar scored wide open on the weak side as the Bears would exit the first period in a 3-0 hole despite getting outshot only 12-10.
Roth said goalie John Roberts, who made 22 saves, had some big stops early to get the Bobcats some breathing room. Roberts was also helped by blocked shots and active sticks in front of the net.
“That’s been our M.O. all season,” Roth said. “The D corps, forwards and centers down low eat a lot of shots. Not every team does that. We’ve got a lot of character in the locker room.”
In the second period, Johnson and Alex Pollock scored as the Bobcats went into the final 20 minutes with a 5-0 lead. Johnson’s tally came on the power play as Bismarck thoroughly won special teams, going 3 for 6 with the extra man and holding Kenai River to 0 for 4. The Bobcats were last in the league in power-play percentage coming into the game.
“We’d been struggling the first 20 games but the guys were urgent and making plays,” Roth said.
With 9:37 left in the second period, Brown Bears forward Alex Klekotka was called for boarding and then fought Noah Bormann, who Roth said, pound-for-pound, is the toughest player in the league. Klekotka ended up with blood coming from his lower lip.
“He hung in there and stood up with the guy to try and get the team going,” Petrich said of Klekotka. “It was the best fight I’ve seen all year.”
Petrich said Emils Ezitis was good on the forecheck in the third period, and he was rewarded when a puck-handling misadventure by Roberts gave Ezitis a tap-in, short-handed goal. But Bormann scored on the power play just 20 seconds later to account for the final score.
Pavliukov had 27 saves for the Brown Bears.
Bobcats 3, Brown Bears 2
Bismarck 1 2 0 —3
Kenai River 0 1 1 —2
First period — 1. Bismarck, Enns (Pollock), 12:23. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Radetic (Garcia, Krajnik), PP, :54; 3. Bismarck, Vescio (Mahan), 2:03; 4. Bismarck, Enns (Haar, Murin), 9:51. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Bismarck 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Kaplan (Posner, McDonald), 13:18. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Bismarck 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Bismarck 13-13-6—32; Kenai River 11-11-11—33.
Goalies — Bismarck, Ullan (33 shots, 31 saves); Kenai River, Enright (32 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Bismarck 0 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 3.
Bobcats 6, Brown Bears 1
Bismarck 3 2 1 — 6
Kenai River 0 0 1 — 1
First period — 1. Bismarck, Grant Johnson (Van Sant, Haar), 4:29; 2. Bismarck, Resseguie (Johnson, O’Connor), pp, 6:45; 3. Bismarck, Haar (Stacho, Johnson), 13:16. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Bismarck, Johnson (Resseguie, O’Connor), pp, 11:21; 5. Bismarck, Pollock (Millen, Vescio), 17:26. Penalties — Bismarck 5 for 21:00; Kenai River 3 for 20:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Ezitis (un.), sh, 11:35; 7. Bismarck, Bormann (Breidenbach, Murin), pp, 11:55. Penalties — Bismarck 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 5 for 20:00.
Shots on goals — Bismarck 12-12-9—33; Kenai River 10-4-9—23.
Goalies — Bismarck, Roberts (23 shots, 22 saves); Kenai River, Pavliukov (33 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Bismarck 3 for 6, Kenai River 0 for 4.