The front end of the Kenai River Brown Bears' nine-game road trip turned into a birthday bash.
Sean Muller scored the game-winning goal on the night of his 20th birthday and Eric Persson added a pair of goals on the eve of his own as Kenai River defeated the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild 5-3 Friday. The Bears dropped the series finale 3-0 Saturday but still came away with four points in three games after beating the Wild in the opener Thursday.
"The birthday boys won it for us," Kenai River coach Oliver David said of Friday's win, coming before 2,807 fans in one of the league's most hostile venues. "It was a very successful weekend."
The Bears (18-16-3, 39 points) remain in fourth place in the North American Hockey League West Division, trailing the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs (24-10-2, 50 points), Alaska Avalanche of Palmer (24-16-1, 49 points) and the Wild (22-14-2, 46). The top four teams advance to the playoffs.
Muller scored a birthday goal on assists from Erick Ware and Matt Thompson with 18:34 to play and the Bears on the power play to give the Bears a 4-3 lead. Persson, who turned the same age a night later, finished the scoring less than two minutes later on an assist from Trent Wohlers.
The pair of goals broke a 3-3 tie and guaranteed the Bears four points on the first leg of their nine-game road trip, which continues with a three-game series against the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage beginning at 7 p.m. Friday. After that, Kenai River visits the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters for three games.
It's a pivotal stretch for the Bears, who for the first time in club history are in good position to finish somewhere other than last place in the NAHL West.
Despite the 3-0 loss Saturday, David was thrilled with his team's effort over the first three games of the trip.
"We played very well the first two nights and just had a difficult time putting the puck in the net tonight," the coach said by phone Saturday. "There's not a lot to complain about."
On Friday, Thompson and captain Brett Lubanski tallied scores as the Bears and Wild played to a 2-2 tie through two periods.
Mathias Dahlstrom started all three games in goal, making 37 saves on 40 shots Friday and 32 saves on 35 shots Saturday. David said the goaltender's efforts were a large reason the Bears won the first two games of the season.
"He was stellar all weekend," David said. "He's probably the biggest reason we were able to accomplish what we did."
Saturday's match, however, belonged to the Wild.
After a scoreless first period, Michael Di Puma gave the Wild the lead at the 8:24 mark of the second, finishing assists from Chris Rumble and Eliot Grauer. Less than two minutes later, DJ Vandercrook made it 2-0 on assists from Carl-Johan Sjogren and Shawn Pauly.
Goaltender Nick Kulmanovsky did the rest, saving 16 shots in as many tries.
David believes the effort against Wenatchee will give the team confidence moving forward, but he said it's more important for the team to focus on one series at a time, one game at a time.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," he said.
Brown Bears 5, Wild 3
Kenai River 2 1 2 --5
Wenatchee 1 2 0 --3
First period -- 1. Kenai River, Thompson (un), 3:15; 2. Kenai River, Lubanski (un), sh, 10:05; 3. Wenatchee, Grauer (Saylor, Rumble), 19:39. Penalties -- Kenai River 2 for 7:00; Wenatchee 3 for 9:00.
Second period -- 4. Kenai River, Persson (Duwe, Lubanski), pp, 5:46; 5. Wenatchee, Pauly (Sjogren, Huson), pp, 6:04; 6. Wenatchee, Di Puma (Rumble, Vandercook), 10:39. Penalties -- Kenai River 4 for 8:00; Wenatchee 3 for 6:00.
Third period -- 7. Kenai River, Muller (Thompson, Ware), pp, 1:26; 8. Kenai River, Persson (Wohlers), 2:48. Penalties -- Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal -- Kenai River 9-11-6--26; Wenatchee 6-17-17--40.
Goalies -- Kenai River, Dahlstrom (40 shots, 37 saves); Wenatchee, Jaeger (23 shots, 18 saves), Kulmanovsky (3 shots, 3 saves).
Power plays -- Kenai River 2 for 5; Wenatchee 2 for 7.
Wild 3, Brown Bears 0
Kenai River 0 0 0 --0
Wenatchee 0 2 1 --3
First period -- No scoring. Penalties -- Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Wenatchee 1 for 2:00.
Second period -- 1. Wenatchee, Di Puma (Rumble, Grauer), pp, 12:36; 2. Wenatchee, Vandercook (Sjogren, Pauly), 14:07. Penalties -- Kenai River 6 for 15:00; Wenatchee 3 for 9:00.
Third period -- 3. Wenatchee, Sjogren (Pauly), pp, 16:01. Penalties -- Kenai River 3 for 14:00; Wenatchee 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal -- Kenai River 6-5-5--16; Wenatchee 11-13-11--35.
Goalies -- Kenai River, Dahlstrom (35 shots, 32 saves); Wenatchee, Kulmanovsky (16 shots, 16 saves).
Power plays -- Kenai River 0 for 2; Wenatchee 2 for 6.
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