The Kenai River Brown Bears earned maximum points in a crucial stretch of the North American Hockey League playoff chase Friday and Saturday, sweeping the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill in a pair of Midwest Division contests.
The Brown Bears snapped a six-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory over the Chill on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, then capped the weekend with a thrilling 5-4 overtime win Saturday.
Luke Radetic notched his first career NAHL hat trick by netting the winner 2 minutes, 39 seconds, into the overtime period. It was Radetic’s sixth career multigoal game and third career game-winning goal, and put him ahead of his points total from last year.
The win lifted the Bears to 12-22-1-1 and put them ahead of the Chill for fifth place in the Midwest Division. Coulee Region, which had won two straight coming into the weekend, falls to 9-16-2-5. The Minnesota Magicians currently hold the fourth and final playoff spot at 35 points, nine points ahead of Kenai River, but Minnesota has lost five straight.
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said the weekend sweep was critical to the Bears’ chances of postseason play.
“We put ourselves ahead of Coulee, so I think it’s a huge momentum swing across the board,” Petrich said. “There’s a lot of positives.”
With the bitter taste of losing to Johnstown (Pennsylvania) last weekend after holding a 3-1 third-period lead, Petrich said it motivated the team to improve on late-game situations.
“That was a big learning lesson last weekend, being up 3-1 in the third,” he said. “It allowed the boys to have a feeling that they didn’t like feeling.”
The Bears held leads of 2-0 and 4-2 before allowing the Chill to tie it both times. With goalie Josh Graziano pulled from net in the final minutes, the Chill tied it up with one minute left with a shot from Gavin Holland.
In overtime, Petrich said Markuss Komuls made a great play at the Kenai River blue line to get the puck to Radetic, who broke out on a small breakaway and slotted home the game winner.
“He had the hot hand and he put it away,” Petrich said.
The Bears were playing at the sports complex Friday for the first time since completing a 13-game homestand Nov. 25. During that stretch, the Bears went 0-5 on Friday night games during a two-game series, struggling with bad starts.
That seemed like a distant memory when Kenai River outshot Coulee Region 15-5 in the first period.
“Playing in front of the home crowd was huge,” Bears forward David Kaplan said. “We had been on the road so long.
“They support us so well. I ran into a couple people this week that said they were looking forward to the games.”
The first goal came when Michael Spethmann got the puck deep and Luke Posner pressured Chill goalie Emil Zetterquist into a turnover. Eagle River’s Sutton McDonald tapped that turnover into an empty net.
The Bears went up 2-0 when Cam McDonald pushed the puck up to Gil Garcia, who left it for the sure shot of Luke Radetic, who is tied for 10th in the league with 34 points.
“Radetic hadn’t scored in eight games and he’s had all the chances in the world,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “It was huge for him to get that off of his back.”
The Chill picked it up after the first period, outshooting Kenai River 18-17 for the rest of the game.
Andrew McGlynn scored a power-play goal for a 2-1 game with 16:25 left in the second, then a little under two minutes later Bears goalie Gavin Enright made a huge save on a breakaway by Marshal Plunkett.
“It it’s a 2-2 game there, who knows what happens?” Petrich said.
Coulee had some momentum in the second, but Petrich said a huge turning point came with 1:14 left, when Kaplan kept the puck and scored on a two-on-zero breakaway.
Kaplan said he is normally a pass-first player, but he saw Zetterquist leaning, so he stuck the puck short-side under his glove.
The 5-foot-9, 154-pound forward from Vernon Hills, Illinois, wasn’t done with his big role in the game because Coulee kept coming hard in the third period.
The Bears had to fight the demons of having given up a 3-1 lead in the final 10 minutes in a Jan. 6 loss at the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks.
“There was a good feeling between the second and third periods,” Petrich said. “I said, ‘Remember six days ago. Let’s not have that feeling again.’”
With 11:18 left, Kevin Bryant cut it to 3-2 with a goal. But with the energy line of Kaplan, Alex Klekotka and Anchorage’s Tyler Miknich holding steady, the Bears were able to secure the win.
Kaplan won faceoffs on his final two shifts, including a big one with 57 seconds left when Coulee Region had just called timeout to put in an extra skater.
“It’s been awesome,” Kaplan said of his line. “We keep it simple.
“It’s nice to know everybody is doing the same thing, and that’s almost always chip it in and forecheck.”
Zetterquist had 29 saves for the Chill, while Enright stopped 21 for the Bears.
Brown Bears 5, Chill 4, OT
Coulee Region 0 2 2 0 —4
Kenai River 0 2 2 1 —5
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Coulee Region 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Kenai River, Radetic (McDonald, Karlsson), 6:35; 2. Kenai River, Ezitis (Guillemain, Krajnik) 8:02; 3. Coulee Region, Decker (Koch, Bowman), PP, 16:41; 4. Coulee Region, Vochozka (Szmul), 19:42. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Coulee Region 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Karlsson (Komuls, Krajnik), 9:07; 6. Kenai River, Radetic (Komuls, Karlsson), PP, 10:39; 7. Coulee Region, Szmul (Bowman, Plunkett), 15:36; 8. Coulee Region, Holland (Koch, Szmul), PP, 19:00. Penalties — Coulee Region, 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 9. Kenai River, Radetic (Karlsson), 2:39.
Goalies — Kenai River, Enright (28 shots, 24 saves); Coulee Region, Graziano (33 shots, 28 saves).
Shots on goal — Kenai River 8-12-9-4—33; Coulee Region 7-9-12-0—28.
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Coulee Region 2 for 3.
Brown Bears 3, Chill 2
Coulee Region 0 1 1 — 2
Kenai River 2 1 0 — 3
First period — 1. Kenai River, S. McDonald (Posner, Spethmann), 7:06; 2. Kenai River, Radetic (Garcia, C. McDonald), 5:46. Penalties — none.
Second period — 3. Coulee Region, McGlynn (Decker), pp, 3:35; 4. Kenai River, Kaplan (Miknich, Fedorek), 18:46. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Coulee Region, Bryant (Holland, Dabrowski), 8:42. Penalties — Coulee Region 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Coulee Region 5-7-11—23; Kenai River 15-8-9—32.
Goalies — Coulee Region, Zetterquist (32 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Enright (23 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Coulee Region 1 for 3, Kenai River 0 for 1.