Kenai River Brown Bears forward Dan Christianson skates the puck past Wichita Falls Wildcats' Brett Kaneshiro in the second period Saturday.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Some people say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Kenai River coach Mike Flanagan seems to think otherwise.
After suffering their 12th one-goal loss of the season, a 4-3 setback to first-place Wichita Falls before a lively crowd at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday night, Flanagan was impressed with the resiliency of his team.
"There's no doubt," he said of showing major improvement. "We're playing better hockey now. It's just a credit to the guys buying into the system and doing the things that we're asking them to do. We're sticking to our game plan and we're getting some results.
"I think the progress is there. I think it's evident on the ice," Flanagan added. "It's been that kind of season where we've lost a lot of games like this. ... It's just the way it goes right now for a first-year team."
Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brett Englebright outreaches a Wichita Falls Wildcat in the second period Saturday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai River had a more difficult time on Saturday, dropping a rough 10-5 decision to the visiting Wildcats, who own a three-point cushion over the Topeka Roadrunners atop the North American Hockey League's South Division.
"They play with confidence. They're not a team that gets rattled," Flanagan said. "If things don't go their way, they just settle in and they say, 'Hey guys, no problem.' They're a good squad and we gave them a good game (Friday)."
Especially in the second period.
Knotted at one entering the middle frame, the Brown Bears peppered Wichita Falls goaltender Phillip Graveline with shots in just his third start for the Wildcats. Outshooting Wichita Falls 12-6 in the period, Kenai River's Nick Simson broke in unabated on Graveline, but the goalie used his right leg to deny the Brown Bears' second-leading scorer.
"Simson, he's a kind of guy that can score and he made a great move and I thought that their guy got the pad down and he made a good save," Flanagan said. "He made a strong move to his backhand and the goalie made an equally good leg save. If he could have got it up over the pad it would have been in."
Kristian Leach then rocketed a wrist shot of the crossbar on a three-on-two rush one minute later, leaving the game tied.
But it wouldn't remain that way for long.
Following another squandered opportunity when Brett Englebright was stuffed by Graveline on a wraparound, Tony McDonald led Simson up the right side. A quick pass to the middle by Simson landed directly on the stick of Garrett Bossert, who one-timed the rubber past Graveline for a 2-1 edge with 7:11 to play in the second.
"It was a beautiful goal," Flanagan said. "The same thing happened last week when we played Topeka, a couple real nice pretty plays and the puck went into the net. So, our guys, I think, are playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is good. It's a good time of year to be feeling like that and overall, I'm happy despite the fact that we didn't get the win."
And despite nearly scoring again when Matt McNamee's slap shot landed on the goal line before being cleared and later surrendering the tying goal when Wichita Falls' Luke Salazar netted a power-play tally with just 27.3 seconds on the clock, the second period may have been the best of the season for the Brown Bears (10-31-7).
"Without a doubt. We had our chances, we got pucks in the net, we made some nice plays," Flanagan said. "We played very well that period."
The third was a different story, though.
Wichita Falls (34-12-2) opened the period with numerous scoring opportunities, but Kenai River goalie Steven Madej stood tall each time, even denying a three-on-one rush created when the Wildcats caught the Brown Bears off guard during a line change.
But the NAHL's second-best team eventually converted when Kyle Delaurell found Brett Kaneshiro in the middle for a smoking wrister that found its way through traffic and past Madej.
Kenai River's goalie got his revenge, though, sprawling to his left and making a sensational save on Shawn Jameson's penalty shot with 5:43 to play in the game.
"They're strong point is their goaltending. He was good, especially on the penalty shot," said Wichita Falls coach John Bowkus. "But he made some key saves at the right time to keep us from going up early and then they were able to capitalize on a couple opportunities."
With the crowd still on its feet following the incredible save, the Brown Bears appeared primed to capitalize yet again.
But instead, Matt Kenline lifted the rubber past Madej (34 saves, 38 shots) and into the back of the net for a commanding 4-2 lead with 2:29 showing on the clock.
The Brown Bears never-say-die-attitude still emerged in the closing minutes. Scott Deur made the Brown Bears extra attacker count with 13.9 seconds to play when he deflected a shot past Graveline.
One last cross through the middle of the Wildcats' zone in the final seconds went for naught as the buzzer sounded.
"That's been a trademark of ours all year. No matter what the final score is, our guys never quit," Flanagan said. " It doesn't always show on the scoreboard, but the effort's there and that's all I ask of my guys to put the effort there. And they do. So, I'm happy with that."
After spending the first seven minutes of the opening period playing defense while having trouble clearing their own zone, the Brown Bears still struck first when Kevin Wentland beat Graveline (36 shots, 39 saves).
But Wichita Falls responded about five minutes later when Adam Cardwell poked in a rebound off a Grant Everett shot.
"We didn't play up to par whatsoever, but we were able to overcome. They kept getting goals on us. It was nice to bounce back like that," Bowkus said, adding they arrived in Soldotna at 4:30 a.m. Friday. "We've got to overcome adversity. We are a first-place team and that's what we expect out of our guys is to make sure that we can do that."
He sees a similar ability in the Brown Bears, who are now 1-7 against his team this season.
"They played very hard and they were able to move the puck on us quite a bit. I like some of their guys, that they work hard and they never quit," he said. "By far, they're one of the more improved teams. If they would have had a better start to the year, they'd still be in the playoff run.
"Not to say that they're not right now," Bowkus added, "but it will be tough for them to make it unless they have a good finish."
Flanagan is well aware of that.
With a little help from the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Kenai River's slim playoff hopes remain alive.
Still trailing fourth-place Texas by five games after the Tornado dropped two at Fairbanks on Friday and Saturday, the Brown Bears who have played three fewer games than the team they're chasing literally now have their sights locked in on Texas, which comes to town for a 7 p.m. tilt Tuesday and another on Friday.
Kenai River also trails the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla, who have now lost 16 straight, by two games with 10 remaining.
"For an expansion team to actually make the playoffs would be huge. And that was a goal that we had. And that goal hasn't changed," Flanagan explained. "But at this point, we realize that right now in order to catch Texas, we have to catch Wasilla. So, we're heading in the right direction."
They took a step back on Saturday, though, falling behind 2-0 before former Kenai Central standout Jed McGlasson sliced the deficit in half with just 51 seconds to play in the first period.
Wichita Falls' patented resiliency appeared again in the second, when Mike Henderson scored only 15 seconds into the frame and Salazar added a power-play tally about five minutes later.
McGlasson scored again with 8:07 to play in the second making it 4-2 before Simson again trimmed it to one when he scored on a power play. But the Wildcats answered with two more goals in a span of 25 seconds and added one more in the first five minutes of the third for a 7-3 lead. Matt McNamee then recorded his first goal as a member of the Brown Bears, but Wichita Falls, which fired 13 shots on goal in every period, responded yet again with three goals in the final 11:14 of the game. Kenai River's Aaron Nell added a tally with 44 seconds to play in capping the 10-5 final.
Graveline turned away 18-of-23 shots while Madej denied 29-of-39.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WILDCATS 4, BROWN BEARS 3
Wichita Falls 1 1 2 4
Kenai River 1 1 1 3
First period 1. Kenai River, Wentland (Leach, Hancock), 10:04; 2. Wichita Falls, Cardwell (Everett, Duddy), 15:02. Penalties Wichita Falls 1 for 2:00.
Second period 3. Kenai River, Bossert (Simson, McDonald), 12:49; Wichita Falls, Salazar (McKenzie, Henderson), 19:33 (pp). Penalties Wichita Falls 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period 5. Wichita Falls, Kaneshiro (Delaurell, McKenzie), 7:04; 6. Wichita Falls, Kenline (Hartung), 17:31; 7. Kenai River, Deur (Glick, McGlasson), 19:46 (extra attacker). Penalties Wichita Falls 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal Wichita Falls, 15-6-17--38; Kenai River, 11-12-16--39.
Goalies Wichita Falls, Graveline (39 saves, 36 shots); Kenai River, Madej (38 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays Wichita Falls 1 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 4.
WILDCATS 10, BROWN BEARS 5
Wichita Falls 2 4 4 10
Kenai River 1 2 2 5
First period 1. Wichita Falls, Jameson (Salazar), 1:06; 2. Wichita Falls, Cardwell (Salazar, Everett), 18:48; 3. Kenai River, McGlasson, (Englebright, Krefski), 19:09. Penalties Wichita Falls 1 for 2:00.
Second period 4. Wichita Falls, Henderson (Jameson), 0:15; 5. Wichita Falls, Salazar (Cardwell), 5:04 (pp); 6. Kenai River, McGlasson, (Englebright), 8:07; 7. Kenai River, Simson (McDonald), 11:46 (pp); 8. Wichita Falls, Morrell (Everett), 14:41; 9. Wichita Falls, Henderson (Heinz), 15:06. Penalties Wichita Falls 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period 10. Wichita Falls, McKenzie (Salazar, Detlefsen), 4:41 (pp); 11. Kenai River, McNamee (McGlasson), 5:24; 12. Wichita Falls, Shkreli (Henderson, Kaneshiro), 8:46; 13. Wichita Falls, Jameson (Shkreli, Henderson), 12:57; 14. Wichita Falls, DeLauro (McKenzie), 17:44 (pp); 15. Kenai River, Nell (Christianson), 19:16. Penalties Wichita Falls 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal Wichita Falls, 13-13-13--39; Kenai River, 6-12-5--23.
Goalies Wichita Falls, Graveline (23 saves, 18 shots); Kenai River, Madej (39 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays Wichita Falls 3 for 6; Kenai River 1 for 5
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