Kenai River Brown Bears forward Adam Krefski lands a punch on Alexandria Blizzard's Lane Bitz in the second period of Friday's boisterous game at the Soldotna Sports Center. Both players received penalties for the skirmish.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Mike Flanagan turned his back to the ice, faced the crowd and unfurled his arms with a quizzical look plastered upon his face.
When Kenai River had what appeared to be an obvious goal waved off by the refs, the Brown Bears coach couldn't fathom why the lamp hadn't been lit.
Unfortunately for Flanagan, the fans, the same ones who immediately voiced their displeasure with a resounding chant of expletives, weren't the ones wearing the stripes.
After laboring through the controversial no-goal call, the Brown Bears added a tally with an extra attacker on the ice with 27 seconds remaining, but promptly surrendered an empty-netter to Alexandria in falling 7-5 to the Blizzard before the largest and most raucous crowd of the season Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"I thought that one was in but he waved it off," Flanagan said. "It's the way it goes. We've had that kind of a season."
Squandering early 2-0 and 3-1 leads, the Brown Bears fell behind 6-4 just 3:41 into the third when Alexandria's Brandon Bahnemann fed a wide-open Garrett Grimstad, who easily slipped the puck past Kenai River netminder Steven Madej.
But the Brown Bears responded in a manner seldom seen before.
Following a solid opportunity which was denied when an Alexandria defender stood in net in place of a sprawling goalie, Kenai River kept the pressure on, firing five or six shots in a 48-second span, including two that hit the crossbar, but Blizzard goaltender Ryan Leets made the necessary saves.
"We had some back-to-back, consistent shifts where we felt we were the better team and we were peppering the goalie Leets with some good shots," Flanagan said. "He made some good saves."
He was so good that he apparently saved one many thought he didn't.
With 4:15 to play, Kenai River forward Nick Simson rifled a slapper from the left circle that somehow sailed through the defense, past Leets' left shoulder and into the far, upper corner of the net. When the puck popped back out, though, the ref immediately signaled to continue play and what many thought should have been a one-goal game remained a two-goal deficit.
But as they have all season, the Brown Bears persevered.
Skating with an extra man when Madej darted off the ice with about one minute remaining, former Kenai Central standout Jed McGlasson scored on a rebound that came off Brett Englebright's stick and ricocheted off the post with under 30 seconds left. But Alexandria squashed any hope of a miracle when Jerry Freismuth wristed the rubber into the open net in the waning seconds of the game.
When a goal had been disallowed in the past, Flanagan traditionally sided with the refs, saying they always have the best angle. This time, however, he's nearly certain as to what he saw.
"Everybody thought it was in. If that goes in and we pull our goalie and get the equalizer, then we're OK. Instead of that goal being counted we're still at a two-goal deficit," he said. "It hurt a little bit, but I don't really think it changed momentum. The guys were that much more determined to get a puck into the net. And we did.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't win but I'm happy that our guys really played their hardest," Flanagan added. "They play with their hearts on their sleeve and I love guys like that."
Losers of nine straight entering the first of their final four games of the season, the Brown Bears came out firing on all cylinders, quickly jumping in front 2-0 on goals by Simson and Adam Krefski only 4:56 into the game.
But Alexandria's Mikael Lickteig, the North American Hockey League's 10th-highest point scorer, poked in a rebound, trimming the deficit to 2-1. Kenai River answered only 54 seconds later when Brett Englebright fed Paul Jenkins from behind the goal for an easy one-timer into the upper netting.
Three more goals from Alexandria Nick Carson on a slapshot that caromed off Madej's glove and into the net, Larry Kincaid on a rebound that bounced off Madej's upper body and Garrett Grimstad on a wrister as a Brown Bears' penalty simultaneously expired staked the Blizzard to a surprising 4-3 advantage after the first.
"The offensive quick start was a pleasant surprise. It's always been there. We always haven't had the best first periods over the course of the season. But we came out ready to play (Friday)," Flanagan said. "To give up the goals that we did in the first period I think we made a couple of poor decisions and some bouncing pucks where maybe we didn't body up on pucks and things like that.
"It was good to see our guys get on the board first and get more than one," he added. "We're doing the little things. We're heading in the right direction. It's unfortunate that we don't, at the end of 60 minutes, have a win."
Alexandria extended its cushion to two midway through the second when Madej emerged from the net and hit the ice on a breakaway, but John Swavely's sliding body propelled the rubber into the goal before Kenai River defenders could get to it.
After McGlasson and Alexandria's Kyle Clement dropped the gloves at the 11:30 mark of the frame, the third fight of the period to that point, Simson fed Matt McNamee in front for a pretty wrister just 23 seconds into a power play in slicing the deficit in half with 9:43 on the second-period clock.
But despite outshooting the Blizzard 22-7 in the third and 38-26 overall, the Brown Bears could only muster one third-period tally in dropping their 10th straight.
"We're just trying to play hard and enjoy our remaining games and finish on a positive note," Flanagan said. "Everybody having fun, everybody working hard and having a good, positive work ethic."
It's certainly been a difficult season. The Brown Bears have won just two games on the road and have lost 14 one-goal affairs.
But if Friday is any indication, the franchise is heading in the proper direction with only two games remaining, both at Fairbanks on Friday and Saturday.
"I think absolutely, with the program being in its infancy and the support that we've had from the community even though we don't have the best team in the league, this year, I think that when we get a good showing like we had (Friday) and the crowd that was there, things can only get better," Flanagan said. "We think as we look ahead to next year with a strong recruiting incoming class and the returning players that we'll have, we should have hopefully a more competitive team next year. I think that will pay off with more people coming out.
"I think ultimately teams coming to play in the Soldotna Sports Center, it will rival the Big Dipper (Ice Arena) in Fairbanks," he added. "(Friday) was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the crowd is concerned. I think it was just great."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
BLIZZARD 7, BROWN BEARS 5
Alexandria 4 1 2 7
Kenai River 3 1 1 5
First period 1. Kenai River, Simson (McDonald), 3:28; 2. Kenai River, Krefski (unassisted), 4:55; 3. Alexandria, Lickteig (Freismuth), 6:50; 4. Kenai River, Jenkins (Deur, Coles), 7:44; 5. Alexandria, Carson (Clement), 9:09; 6. Alexandria, Kincaid (Nemgar, Nilsson), 13:58; 7. Alexandria, Grimstad (Nemgar, Swavely), 17:08. Penalties Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period 8. Alexandria, Swavely (Carson), 6:17; 9. Kenai River, McNamee (Simson, Englebright), 10:17 (pp). Penalties Alexandria 9 for 35:00; Kenai River 7 for 31:00.
Third period 10. Alexandria, Grimstad (Bahnemann), 3:41; 11. Kenai River, McGlasson (McDonald, Englebright), 19:33 (extra attacker); 12. Alexandria, Freismuth (Nesper), 19:50 (empty net). Penalties Alexandria 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal Alexandria 9-11-7 27; Kenai River 7-9-22 38.
Goalies Alexandria, Leets (38 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Madej (26 shots, 20 saves).
Power plays Alexandria 0 for 3; Kenai River 1 for 5.
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