Brown Bears forward Kevin Wentland keeps Kyle Maggard of the Bobcats from the puck in the third period Friday.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
For Kenai River Brown Bears coach Mike Flanagan, it's never too early to start thinking about the North American Hockey League playoffs.
The Brown Bears, who won't play their last regular season game until March 22, improved their playoff prospects by defeating the Bismarck Bobcats 3-2 on Friday in a shootout and 2-1 on Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The Brown Bears are still in last place in the six-team South Division, but with a 5-11-2 record they are creeping closer to fourth-place Texas and fifth-place Alaska. The Brown Bears are one point behind Alaska and two behind Texas. The top four in each division make the playoffs.
"We're fighting for a playoff spot," said Flanagan, who knew immediately after Friday's games the scores from around the league that affected his team. "It's one shot, one period, one game at a time.
"When the Red Sox won the World Series, they said they did it one pitch at a time. We've got to take the same approach and have the same urgency."
In Friday's game in front of 741 late-arriving fans, Brown Bears goalie Stephen Madej wasn't about to miss out on his favorite part of hockey the shootout.
Kenai River Brown Bears goalie Steve Madej stops a shot from a Bismarck Bobcat during a shootout to decide the victor of Friday night's game following a period of overtime at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
With 2:20 left in the sudden-death, 4-on-4 overtime period, Kenai River had a major breakdown on its power play for the third time in the game and Bobcats forward Kyle Maggard got a breakaway on Madej. Brown Bears forward Jeffrey Harris gave Maggard a penalty shot when he used his stick to slow down Maggard.
The Brown Bears were now faced with a loss in a game in which they held the lead with under six minutes in regulation and a contest in which they would outshoot the Bobcats 37-26. How was Flanagan feeling at this point?
"Looking back and seeing Stephen in the pipes, I'll take my chances any day," Flanagan said.
Madej also liked his chances. He gave credit to Harris for fouling Maggard on the breakaway, saying he prefers a penalty shot to a breakaway because he has more time to prepare and it eliminates the possibility of a score on the rebound.
Madej stuffed Maggard on the forehand side to help send the game to a shootout.
"I live for the shootout," Madej said. "It's definitely my favorite part of the game. There's all the pressure and all of the fans cheering for you. It's a lot of fun."
This was the third time the Brown Bears had been involved in a shootout, but Kenai River lost the first two at the Alaska Avalanche on Oct. 28 and at Bismarck on Oct. 6. Madej was not in net either time. Against Alaska, Matt Wichorek stopped five of six and against Bismarck, Spencer Alvarez stopped four of six.
The Brown Bears struggled on penalty shots, though, missing all six against Alaska and making just one of six against Bismarck goalie Jake Kremer, who was backing up Jake Reilly on Friday night.
Flanagan made changes to his lineup of shooters on Friday. Aaron Nell, who has missed in the shootout at Bismarck, was the only Kenai River player who had been in a shootout for the Brown Bears before.
"It's good to change it up," Flanagan said. "It keeps up morale in the troops and it fosters competition."
Flanagan's changes worked. Bryan Murphy opened the shootout with a miss, but Nell and Tony McDonald followed by poking the puck through the legs of Reilly. After stopping Bismarck's first three shooters, Madej could have iced the win by thwarting Joel Whited, but Whited crossed in front of Madej and wristed the puck top shelf.
Enter Paul Jenkins, who was playing his first game with the team. Jenkins said that when Nell and McDonald scored their five-hole goals, it set up his favorite move perfectly.
"I just got his glove down, and put it over the top," he said.
The shootout kept a badly needed point from slipping through the Brown Bears' gloves. Bismarck came into the two-game series in second-last place in the Central Division and had scored the second-fewest goals in the NAHL, thanks in part to the second-worst power-play percentage in the league.
Kenai River came into the series having allowed the most goals in the league by 12. The Brown Bears were tied for the most penalty minutes in the league and were fourth-worst on the penalty kill.
The Brown Bears' big advantage was the line of Jeffrey Harris, Nick Simson and Kevin Harris. The three came as the top three scorers on the Brown Bears and padded those totals during the game.
With 8:44 left in the second period, Jeffrey Harris scored on assists by Simson and Kevin Harris.
About two minutes later, Colin Huey took advantage of a Brown Bears turnover in their own zone and scored a shorthanded goal to knot the game. It was the first shorthanded goal for Bismarck this year, but a league-leading fifth allowed by the Brown Bears.
In the first period, the Bobcats had a golden shorthanded opportunity but Madej turned away a point-blank shot by Nick Taurence. In overtime, there was the power-play breakdown that led to the penalty shot.
"It's been happening all year," Flanagan said of breakdowns on the power play. "It comes in bunches. We've got to support the puck when we're on the power play."
With 13:22 left in the third period, Simson, on an assist from Jeffrey Harris, put the Brown Bears back ahead. The Brown Bears, on their way to outshooting the Bobcats 13-8 in the final period, had several other fine opportunities in the next few minutes and had all the momentum until Adam Wiesner took a hooking penalty with 5:22 to play.
Bismarck took a timeout and just 17 seconds into the power play, Derek Kohles tied the game on assists from Ryan Kayfes and Maggard to send the game to the dramatic overtime and shootout, which ended with the home side taking a bow to the cheering crowd.
"We're a first-year team," Flanagan said. "We've had dark days behind us, and I'm sure we'll face some more ahead. The support of the community so far has meant so much to us. This is a great place to play junior hockey."
Saturday, 768 watched as the Brown Bears overcame a 1-0 deficit. Brett Englebright, on assists from Kristian Leach and Jenkins, scored to even the game, and Kevin Harris, on assists from Simson and Jeffrey Harris, got the game winner with 13:52 left in the game. Madej made 28 saves.
BROWN BEARS 3, BOBCATS 2, SO
Bismarck 0 1 1 0 0 2
Kenai River 0 1 1 0 1 3
First period none. Penalties Bismarck 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 14:00.
Second period 1. Kenai River, J. Harris (Simson, K. Harris), 11:16; 2. Bismarck, Hoey (Taurrence), sh., 13:22. Penalties Bismarck 2 for 4:00.
Third period 3. Kenai River, Simson (J. Harris), 6:38; 4. Bismarck, Kohles (Kayfes, Maggard), pp, 14:34. Penalties Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime none. Penalties Bismarck 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shootout Kenai River 1 (Murphy NG, Nell G, Lewis G, Jenkins G); Bismarck 0 (Lund NG, Maggard NG, Lewis NG, Whited G).
Shots on goal Bismarck 10-8-8-0-0 26; Kenai River 8-12-13-4-1 37.
Goalies Bismarck, Reilly (37 shots, 35 saves); Kenai River, Madej (26 shots, 24 saves).
Power play Bismarck 1 for 3; Kenai River 0 for 4.
BROWN BEARS 2, BOBCATS 1
Bismarck 0 1 0 1
Kenai River 0 1 1 2
First period none. Penalties Bismarck 2 for 4:00.
Second period 1. Bismarck, Kayfes (Whited, Keogh), pp, 3:38; 2. Kenai River, Englebright (Leach, Jenkins), 7:22. Penalties Bismarck 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period 3. Kenai River, Kevin Harris (Simson, Jeffrey Harris), 6:08. Penalties Bismarck 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal Bismarck 4-11-14 29; Kenai River 14-3-14 31.
Goalies Bismarck, Reilly (31 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Madej (29 shots, 28 saves).
Power play Bismarck 1 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 4.
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