Kenai River Brown Bears' Paul Jenkins tries to control the puck between Alaska Avalanche's Alex Young and Sean Ranum in the third period Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Jamie Smith felt he had no other choice.
Placed in a tight spot, forced to make a bold decision, the Alaska Avalanche coach didn't hesitate.
And it paid off big time.
Trailing by a goal entering the third period, Smith benched his second line, yet the Avalanche still managed a pair of third-period goals in capturing a wild 6-5 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"It's due to the fact that ... the effort really wasn't there. They were kind of riding the blue line, trying to get the big breaks all the time and we had defensive breakdowns," Smith explained. "So, we needed to send a message to some guys." Consider it delivered.
Not just to his crew, but also to the Brown Bears, who opened up a 2-0 lead within the first eight minutes of the game only to surrender that cushion, along with a 4-3 edge early in the second, in snapping a two-game winning streak.
"It's just not consistent, just very inconsistent hockey. I'm disappointed," a visibly upset Kenai River coach Mike Flanagan said. "I'm disappointed for the fans that came out here to watch. I just feel like we weren't prepared to play. We weren't prepared to win."
Kenai River Brown Bears' C.J. Henley tangles with Alaska Avalanche's Dylan Jones in the second period Friday.
Flanagan, whose team picked up a point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Avs on Saturday at the Sports Center, is hoping his team regroups for the remaining five games of this unusual series, in which both teams will face off a total of seven consecutive times between Friday and Nov. 25.
"We hate the fact that we have to play seven straight games in a row, but the fact that we can come out there and get that first win kind of sets the tone a little bit. Then you can kind of move on from there," Smith said. "Our goal's to come down, if we can go away and get splits or get points in each game, that's the key for us right now."
The key for the Brown Bears has now shifted to defense, which they lacked against the Avalanche, constantly surrendering odd-man rushes against a team just three points ahead of them in the NAHL South Division standings entering the game.
While lax defense was clearly the Brown Bears' Achilles' heal, it wasn't the only problem, according to Flanagan.
"We didn't execute our systematic play. We didn't keep our high guy and we had D's pinching. It was just breakdowns all over the ice in all three areas in the offensive zone, in the neutral zone and the defensive zone," he said. "They were lackadaisical on back checks. Our D didn't do a very good job of advancing the puck. It was just an all-around bad game."
It didn't begin that way, though. Garrett Bossert scored just 1:45 into the contest off an assist from Brett Englebright and Bryan Murphy made it 2-0 at the 12:36 mark when he intercepted the puck just outside the blue line, darted toward the right side of the net just ahead of a pair of defenders and slipped it past Alaska goaltender Dusan Sidor's lower far side.
Alaska's Tyler Currier trimmed the deficit to one only 16 seconds later when he put the puck by Kenai River goalie Matt Wichorek, who denied 28 of the 34 shots he faced in the game.
Englebright answered on a 5-on-3 with 4:48 to play in the first when he poked in a rebound off a Justin Hancock shot, and it appeared the Brown Bears would head into the locker room with a comfortable lead.
But following a holding penalty on Sebastian Johansson, the Avalanche took advantage of that as well as Wichorek dropped his stick, stood in goal with just his pads, and wasn't able to corral a Kyle Pichler shot that ricocheted off his body and into the back of the net, making it 3-2 with just 27.6 seconds left.
Alaska then knotted the game 11 seconds into the second when Dustin Skinner scored off an assist from Sean Ranum, silencing the crowd of 672.
"That's not being prepared to play," Flanagan said. "We addressed the team after the first period and felt we should have come out of that period with a 3-0 lead. But instead it's 3-2.
"Then we go right back with our top five guys on the opening shift and they cough one up. It's just not being ready to play."
The comeback didn't end there, though.
Skinner gave the Avalanche their first lead of the contest when he scored his second goal of the game, breaking in on Wichorek and deking him to the left before backhanding it over his right shoulder at the 14:59 mark of the middle frame.
"Wichorek got hung out to dry (Friday). The team didn't play well for him. He made some great saves," Flanagan said. "We outshot them almost two-to-one in the first and second period. We outshot them but I think they had the better scoring opportunities because we had the breakdowns.
"It was just a total mental breakdown (Friday)," he added. "Not being prepared to play and not being prepared to execute and not being prepared to win and not being prepared to take advantage of an opportunity."
The Brown Bears did capitalize on a power play, however, when Englebright sent a cross-ice pass from just inside the blue line to the low post where Hancock wristed it past Sidor for the equalizer.
About a minute later, Jeffrey Harris, the Brown Bears' leading point scorer, put his team back on top when he stole the puck along the right boards and skated toward the lone defender. Rather than passing to his wide-open brother, Kevin, he sent a wrist shot sailing by Sidor (40 saves on 45 shots) with just 25 seconds remaining in the second.
That's when the Brown Bears' defensive breakdowns took its toll, coincidentally, at the same time Smith yanked his second line.
Wichorek stopped Tommy Engseth on a breakaway but seconds later, Joe Harren rifled a shot through traffic and past the Brown Bears goalie, knotting the game at five only 4:32 in the third.
Again facing an onslaught of shots, Wichorek stood strong.
He first denied Jeremiah Dargis, who received a pass just inside the blue line and skated in on Wichorek before the goalie made a sprawling kick save.
Then he covered a slapper, defeated a three-on-one and easily saved a wrister with 2:40 to play.
But Wichorek could only do so much.
Dargis, leading a three-on-two, sent a shot into the crease from the far side which Wichorek saved, but Currier was there to poke the rebound into the near-empty net for the game-winner.
Smith said he could see the goal coming.
"We had some posts, we had some things coming that I thought that momentum was going our direction," he said, adding it occurred with his second line of Larry Kincaid, Alex Rasmussen and Michael McCurtain riding the bench. "It worked out great. We played better, actually. We played a lot better.
"I thought, third period, we played pretty dang good. It worked out for us. We ended up getting the two goals, which was key."
Flanagan, whose team had earned nine points in its last eight games entering Friday night's contest when they outshot the Avalanche 45-34, didn't see the mental lapse coming as the Browns Bears dropped to 1-2 versus their instate rival this season.
"I was absolutely expecting for that to continue (Friday)," he said of their success. "We took two steps back. We took two steps back because we didn't come to play.
"Certainly playing an instate rival is excitement enough. I think the guys should find the fire in their own belly. You've got to have the fire in the belly to play," Flanagan added. "When you're playing a team that's three hours away, that's only a couple of points ahead of you in the standings, that's enough fuel to add to the fire right there. But we just didn't come to play."
In Saturday's game, Alaska's Skinner was the only player to make a goal in the shootout, giving the Avalanche the victory.
The Brown Bears took a 2-0 lead into the third period behind second-period goals from Adam Wiesner and Tony McDonald. The Avalanche stormed back with three straight goals to begin the third period, before Brown Bears' Jon Larson scored with 2:26 left in the third to send the game to overtime.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
AVALANCHE 6, BROWN BEARS 5
Alaska 2 2 2 6
Kenai River 3 2 0 5
First period 1. Kenai, Bossert (Englebright), 1:45; 2. Kenai, Murphy (McGlasson), 7:24; 3. Alaska, Currier (McCurtain), 7:40; 4. Kenai, Englebright (Sturdevant, Hancock), 15:12 (pp); 5. Alaska, Pichler (Detlefsen, Dargis), 19:33 (pp). Penalties Alaska 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period 6. Alaska, Skinner (Ranum), 0:11; 7. Alaska, Skinner (Zierden, Harren), 5:01; 8. Kenai, Hancock (Englebright, Sturdevant), 18:36 (pp); 9. Kenai, J. Harris (Simson), 19:35. Penalties Alaska 1 for 2:00.
Third period 10. Alaska, Harren (Kelly, Detlefsen), 4:32; 11. Alaska, Currier (Dargis, Detlefsen), 18:09. Penalties Alaska 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal Alaska 8-11-15 34; Kenai River 16-16-13 45.
Goalies Alaska, Sidor (45 shots-40 saves); Kenai River, Wichorek (34 shots-28 saves).
AVALANCHE 4, BROWN BEARS 3
Alaska 0 0 3 0 1 4
Kenai River 0 2 1 0 0 3
First period No scoring. Penalties Alaska 3 for 14:00.
Second period 1. Kenai River, Wiesner (un.), 6:11; 2. Kenai River, McDonald (Henley), 19:10. Penalties Alaska 4 for 19:00; Kenai River 3 for 9:00.
Third period 3. Alaska, Harren (Skinner, Currier), 8:37; 4. Alaska, Pichler (Detiefsen, Jones), 9:26; 5. Alaska, Dargis (Engseth), 15:23; 6. Kenai River, Larson (Murphy), 18:34. Penalties Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime No scoring. Penalties none.
Shootout Alaska 1 (Dargis NG, Jones NG, Pichler NG, Skinner G, Currier NG); Kenai River 0 (Murphy NG, Jenkins NG, Wiesner NG, McGlasson NG, Englebright NG).
Shots on goal Alaska 4-18-15-2 39; Kenai River 12-8-6-5 31.
Goalies Alaska, Corey (31 shots, 28 saves); Kenai River, Madej (39 shots, 36 saves).
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