Kenai River may be the Bizzaro Topeka.
Losers of 12 straight and 18 of their previous 20 entering Friday night's tilt with the Roadrunners, the Brown Bears have only twice come back from third-period deficits to win.
On the other side stands perhaps the hottest team in the North American Hockey League. Winners of four in a row and nine of their previous 10, Topeka has lost just twice when entering the final period with a lead.
Make that three now in both worlds.
In their first home game in 76 days, the Brown Bears answered Topeka's four-goal, second-period flurry with four third-period tallies of their own, including the game-winner by Sebastian Johansson with 45.6 seconds left, in capturing a thrilling 7-5 victory over the second-place Roadrunners before an energetic and win-starved crowd at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"Sweet win for sure," said Kenai River coach Mike Flanagan. "It's been a long time coming. It feels good. The guys worked hard."
They did again on Saturday, too, escaping another barn burner with a 3-2 overtime victory when Kenai Central graduate Jed McGlasson recorded a power-play tally off assists from Soldotna senior Clayton Glick and Adam Krefski.
Outshot 43-17 on Saturday, including a 15-2 onslaught in the third, the Brown Bears' hopes clearly rested on goalie Matt Wichorek, who delivered by stopping a pair of breakaways in the extra session and 41 shots overall.
"Wichorek's really the reason why we won," Flanagan said via cell phone.
Nearly everybody contributed on Friday, though.
Brett Englebright recorded a goal and four assists, McGlasson added three assists and the clinching empty-net goal with 31.6 seconds remaining and Krefski chipped in a pair of goals and an assist in helping the Brown Bears return home in style Friday with their first victory since Dec. 21.
"It was huge. It was great for us to come back like that," Englebright said. "We've had trouble all year, especially in the third period. And to come back like that is just great."
Especially since Topeka was part of the problem in the first place.
Outscoring Kenai River 20-5 in a three-game sweep of the Brown Bears more than three weeks ago, Topeka, as Flanagan put it, was "firing on all cylinders."
No more so than during a 10-2 thrashing of Kenai River on Jan. 26, the worst loss in the short history of the Brown Bears franchise. A closed-door, 45-minute meeting following that setback gave players and coaches alike a chance to air anything on their minds.
One goal they set that day was to beat Topeka (26-10-7).
Mission accomplished. And Flanagan didn't seem the least bit surprised after the most improbable victory.
"I know it's always been there and it's been a long year for us. It's there. We're close," he said. "We've lost a lot of games in the third period when maybe we were just tired or didn't have the horses or what have you. But we've got a good group of guys that stick together. The faith in your teammate is everything."
Kenai River (10-28-7) deserved to come out on top, too.
Minus a disastrous stretch during which they surrendered three goals and the lead in four minutes, 26 seconds, and another tally five minutes later in quickly falling behind 5-2, the Brown Bears outshot the Roadrunners 12-10 in the third and proved they belonged on the same sheet of Olympic-sized ice.
Battling palpable frustration, they calmly stormed back like it's them fighting for first place in the South Division.
With only 36.3 ticks remaining on the second-period clock and a three-goal deficit to climb out of, McGlasson gathered a rebound and fired a shot at Topeka goalie Bryce Merriam. Making the initial save before sprawling on his shoulders to deny the first rebound, Merriam couldn't contain Englebright, who made the second rebound count with Krefski picking up an assist.
The trio hooked up again, cutting the deficit in half only 1:02 into the third when McGlasson and Englebright set up Krefski, who scored Kenai River's second goal in the second frame on Saturday as well.
"They were our best line (Friday). Englebright, Krefski and (Scott) Deur for the first part until he got thrown out (on the same play that the Roadrunners took a 4-2 lead). And then McGlasson, he was having a good game," Flanagan said. "Then when Deur was ejected out of the game, I just felt that the next guy to go back on that line would be Jed. They were clicking.
"So, Jed had a great game as well. It was good to see him. And Englebright and Krefski, that's why we made the move for Krefski. He's a point-getter," he added, referring to the acquisition of Krefski from first-place Wichita Falls. "Those guys are working well together."
Englebright then assisted on the tying goal.
Receiving a pass in the neutral zone, he darted toward a defenseman, flew by his left side and rifled the rubber off Merriam's blocker. Justin Hancock was perfectly positioned to knot the game at five with 3:44 left in regulation.
"I haven't been playing as well as I can," Englebright said. "I sat down and talked to the coach and finally stepped it up. I've been playing well the past three games, I think. And it finally came to me (Friday)."
That's where Kenai River goaltender Steven Madej (30 saves, 35 shots) emphatically entered the picture.
Having already showcased a variety of circus stops throughout the game, Madej came up big when it mattered most. He strung together an impressive display of kick saves, including one a two-on-one break with his pad and another with his right skate with 1:10 to play, in helping preserve the tie game.
"I think Steve certainly earned his win (Friday)," Flanagan said.
It was roughly 25 seconds later that Nick Simson skated behind Topeka's net and fed a slicing Johansson, who lifted the puck over Merriam's left shoulder and simultaneously gave hope to a struggling franchise.
McGlasson's empty-netter with only 31.6 seconds left officially lifted any lingering memories of the 32 nights spent sleeping in hotel beds and without a homecooked meal.
"I wasn't so sure that we could maybe score four goals in the third period, but I thought we could get two and maybe pull the goalie and try to get the equalizer," Flanagan said. "I knew that we still had some gas left in the tank.
"I just asked the guys, I said, 'You've heard before, but let's just empty the tank. Tomorrow's another day. Tomorrow doesn't matter. What matters is right now. You're only as good as your last shift,'" he added. "Our guys were great on our last shift."
They were solid on their first, too, nearly lighting the lamp 16 seconds into the game. Instead, though, the Brown Bears fell behind 1-0 only 1:37 later when Topeka's center won a face off in Kenai River's zone and dropped the puck to Corey Jendras, who wristed it over Madej's shoulder.
Never wavering in the face of adversity, Kenai River tied it at the 7:42 mark when Englebright assisted Deur, feeding him from behind for an initial shot and then a rebound before it eventually went in.
Krefski then staked Kenai River to its first lead only 1:22 into the second after Englebright and Deur fired shots on goal and he was there to poke in the rebound.
The lead was short-lived, though, as Topeka's Steve Shafer who netted both Roadrunner goals on Saturday scored on the doorstep and Josh Kamrass promptly netted two goals in capping the 4:26 scoring barrage on a power play.
"These teams, they have the ability to score like that at will" Flanagan said. "Sometimes they just flip the switch and it goes on."
Kenai River obviously has that very same switch.
After falling behind by three with 2:11 to play in the period, Englebright's crucial goal sparked the turnaround.
"We were a little down there in the second period but getting that one late in the second period kind of picked the guys back up in the sense that, 'Hey, we're not out of it. And no matter what the final score's going to be, we're just going to never die and we're not going to quit,'" Flanagan said.
They're not quitting on a late playoff push, either.
The two victories, coupled with a pair of losses by fourth-place Texas who has played four more games than Kenai River and is residing in the division's final playoff berth leaves the Brown Bears only 5 1/2 games out with 13 to play. Nine of those are at home, too, including today's 3 p.m. series finale against the Roadrunners.
"I hope that it leads to bigger and better things for our guys," Flanagan said. "It could be the beginning of something big. It could just be the beginning of continuing to play at a higher level, which our guys can certainly do."
They proved that Friday to the deserving crowd, which turned out on a chilly night after 2 1/2 months without hockey.
"The (road) trip was long. We weren't having success success in the sense of getting wins. We were having little successes throughout games, but at the end of the game, we just weren't getting the wins. It wears on you," he said. "So, there's no doubt getting back home was good for the guys, good for the morale."
BROWN BEARS 7, ROADRUNNERS 5
Topeka 1 4 0 5
Kenai River 1 2 4 7
First period 1. Topeka, Jendras (Seckel), 1:53; 2. Kenai River, Deur (Englebright, Krefski), 12:18. Penalties Topeka 1 for 2:00.
Second period 3. Kenai River, Krefski (Englebright, Deur), 1:22; 4. Topeka, Shafer (Hayes, Paulazzo), 8:22 (pp); 5. Topeka, Kamrass (Jendras, Seckel), 9:33; 6. Topeka, Kamrass (Seckel, Jendras), 12:48 (pp); 7. Topeka, Hill (George, Trousdale), 17:49; 8. Kenai River, Englebright (Krefski, McGlasson), 19:24. Penalties Topeka 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 5 for 20:00.
Third period 9. Kenai River, Krefski (McGlasson, Englebright), 1:02; 10. Kenai River, Hancock (Englebright, McGlasson), 16:16; 11. Kenai River, Johansson (Simson, McDonald), 19:15; 12. Kenai River, McGlasson (unassisted), 19:29 (empty net). Penalties Topeka 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal Topeka 11-14-10 35; Kenai River 9-8-12 29.
Goalies Topeka, Merriam (28 shots-22 saves); Kenai River, Madej (35 shots-30 saves).
Power plays Topeka 2 for 6; Kenai River 0 for 3.
BROWN BEARS 3, ROADRUNNERS 2, OT
Topeka 1 0 1 0 2
Kenai River 1 1 0 1 3
First period 1. Kenai River, Jenkins (McDonald, Leach), 6:43; 2. Topeka, Shafer, Paulazzo, Gens), 19:37. Penalties Topeka 1 for 2:00.
Second period 3. Kenai, Krefski (Deur, Wentland), 2:04. Penalties Topeka 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 6 for 20:00.
Third period 4. Topeka, Shafer (Swank, Artman), 3:32 (pp). Penalties Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime 5. Kenai River, McGlasson (Krefski, Glick), 2:57 (pp). Penalties Topeka 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal Topeka 11-16-15-1 43; Kenai River 5-9-2-1 17.
Goalies Topeka, Rocker (17 shots, 14 saves); Kenai River, Wichorek (43 shots, 41 saves).
Power plays Topeka 1 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 2.
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