Brown Bears lose in return to ice

The Kenai River Brown Bears returned to action Saturday for the first time since Nov. 14 with a 5-2 loss to the host Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel in North American Hockey League play.

The Brown Bears, who are temporarily based in Minnesota, had their season paused due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the state of Minnesota.

The pause also affected the Steel, who also paused after the Nov. 14 game against the Bears.

Chippewa was able to get in regular skating practices after getting back together this week, because rinks are open in Wisconsin. Rinks are not open in Minnesota until Monday, so the Bears did not have the same luxury.

The Steel also had Thursday and Friday games against the Minnesota Magicians — the first two games of the season for the Magicians — so Chippewa was able to get back up to game speed coming into the Kenai River game.

Brown Bears coach Kevin Murdock said the coaching staff knew the Steel would either be tired for Saturday’s game, or sharp due to the ice time. He said the latter was true.

“They played pretty well,” Murdock said of the Steel. “You could tell they were in game mode. They took advantage of the first few days back.”

Meanwhile, Murdock said his team had some players who hadn’t skated regularly in over a month. The coach said some players had been able to skate regularly. Without having watched the film, Murdock said during the game he felt like he could tell which players had skated more by how they were playing.

“The consistency through the lineup is what hurt us,” Murdock said. “Some of our guys played really well, and some of our guys struggled.”

Murdock also said the coaches had to feel out where the players were on the fly. The head coach said the team is not back to square one, but added it was apparent that some of the lessons of training camp need to be revisited.

“I think the guys are definitely happy to be back together playing again,” Murdock said. “They had to wait long enough to get the season started, then to have it shut down again a month into it wasn’t great.”

Wasilla’s Porter Schachle, assisted by Peter Morgan and Dylan Hadfield, started the scoring, but Chippewa had the game tied by the end of the first period.

The Steel then jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first 10 minutes of the second period before Morgan Winters, assisted by Adam Szubert and Anchorage’s Ryan Reid, cut it to 3-2.

Winters joined the team over the pause, coming from the United States Hockey League. Forward Gramm McCormack also joined the team. Murdock said the two acquisitions put the Bears at the limit of 27 players.

In the third period, the Steel scored twice to salt away the game.

Grant Boldt had 22 saves for the Steel, while Luke Pavicich stopped 25 for the Bears.

Kenai River now will be based in Breezy Point, Minnesota, where the rink opens Monday. The summer resort town is where the Bears had training camp.

“The nice part is it’s very hockey-oriented,” Murdock said of Breezy Point. “Everybody is together all the time and it allows us to put all the focus on hockey for the time being.”

The Brown Bears are now 3-2-0-0, while Chippewa is 2-5-0-0. Kenai River plays at the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Friday and Saturday. Janesville leads the Midwest Division, which includes the Bears, at 4-3-2-0.

The Midwest Division has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus thus far. Janesville leads the division in games played at nine, while every other division has a team that has played at least 20 games.