WENATCHEE — Wenatchee center Joe Sullivan ended up on the bottom of an icy dog pile after a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Thursday at Town Toyota Center.
Seconds before, he netted his only score of the night, a game-winning overtime goal which completed a furious come-from-behind Wild win. The pass from fellow center Max McHugh crossed the Brown Bears’ goal and fell gracefully into Sullivan’s possession. Sullivan ripped a forehand shot to secure the win with 3:11 left in the extra period. It was Wenatchee’s third unanswered goal of the night and its second consecutive contest decided after the third period.
“All the credit goes to Max,” said Sullivan, who remembered seeing the puck trickle past Kenai River keeper Marcus Zelzer. “It was a sick pass.”
No doubt, the thrilling finish was a display of how effective Wenatchee (27-6-4 overall) can be.
Trailing 3-1 after the second period, the Wild averted a potential crisis and a three-game losing streak by creating numerous scoring opportunities, playing gritty defense and getting some quality stops from goalie Robert Nichols, who finished the night with 28 saves — 11 of which came in the final period of regulation.
Forward Jono Davis turned in another inspired performance, recording an assist and a goal (his fourth in three outings), and McHugh tallied the game-tying score in the third period off an assist from Jacob Barber, which made Sullivan’s arena-rocking game-winner possible. Barber scored the team’s first goal while shorthanded in the first period. McHugh and Barber led the team with two assists apiece.
But for all the heroics and inspired play that accounted for the comeback, the first two periods were problematic — and coach Bliss Littler was quick to admit that.
“Call the cops,” the boss bench said. “We stole a couple of points.”
Wentchee entered Thursday’s contest with a two-game losing streak and looked to be in trouble early on. It struggled producing quality shots and allowed Kenai River (15-19-5 overall) to take 12 shots on goal in the first period alone.
The team’s hardships carried over into the second period, when it was outscored 2-0 and outshot again.
The Wild weren’t performing at their usual high-octane level, which Littler attributed to the team’s mental state.
“We’re just gripping our sticks real tight right now,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of kids worrying about college right now, and the more you think, the slower you play.”
The first-year Wenatchee coach, who was a walk-on at the University of North Dakota, remembers the uneasy and omnipresent feeling of facing an uncertain future, which is something many of his players without scholarships are dealing with.
“These kids, ones that don’t have scholarships, they don’t sleep very well at night,” said Littler, adding that there are still many quality players on the roster without scholarships.
Davis, who recorded his 24th goal of the season Thursday, also felt the frustrations that plagued his team in the first two periods. He said it’s something the team has been dealing with the last few outings.
“We just wanted to do so much and make each other proud,” he said. “But bounces weren’t going our way.”
Thursday’s game wasn’t necessarily a must-win for the NAHL West-leading squad, but it was certainly an important step in retaining divisional dominance and could be a wake-up call for a team that entered the night struggling.
In the future, Davis said he and his teammates need to perform better in the early stages of the game and do a better job of establishing themselves in the first shift of play.
“We need to start showing people how we can play like we did at the beginning of the year,” he said.
Fortunately for the Wild, there’s still plenty of time to do that. They face the Brown Bears again today and Saturday at home, and have about two months left in the regular season. But without a doubt, Kenai River will want revenge after the Thursday’s dramatic finish.