There’s something about playing the Kenai River Brown Bears that has brought out the best in Anchorage Wolverines forward Fedya Nikolayenya. In his first NAHL season, four of his seven goals and half of his 14 points have come against one of Anchorage’s two in-state rivals.
The two teams played the first game of their third two-game series of the season on Friday night at Ben Boeke Arena, and the native of Minsk, Belarus, led the Wolverines in scoring with a pair of goals. The total gave him at least one in each series against Kenai thus far, but it wasn’t enough to pull off the win as the Wolverines fell to the Brown Bears 5-4 in overtime.
“He’s just a very talented player,” Wolverines coach Evan Trupp said. “He’s a happy-go-lucky kid, he does his job, he sticks up for his teammates and he’s been playing really good for us.”
Anchorage found itself in a quick 2-0 hole less than two minutes into the opening period. But Nikolayenya helped his teammate David Tolan get their team on the board with an assist. Anchorage’s Danny Reis found the back of the net a few minutes later, and the teams closed the first period tied 2-2.
From there, Nikolayenya took over in the second period and scored a pair of goals nearly 10 minutes apart to give the Wolverines a 4-2 lead.
“I made a mistake on the first (Kenai) goal and I just wanted to fix it,” Nikolayenya said. “I tried to play with more confidence because I know I can score and I can assist.”
He doesn’t know exactly why he has been especially successful on offense against the Brown Bears but is glad to be a consistent contributor.
“I just want to help my team every game,” Nikolayenya said. “Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.”
The only way that the Brown Bears were able to cool him down was by forcing Nikolayenya to the penalty box after he drew a roughing minor with 10 seconds left in the second period.
“When he sticks up for his teammates, it kind of gets him in trouble sometimes, but you love to see when he’s being a good team player,” Trupp said.
The Wolverines played well on special teams for the vast majority of the game, scoring two power play goals and not allowing any for Kenai over the first two periods. But with just under four minutes left in the third period, Kenai scored a power play goal that tied the game at 4-4 and forced overtime.
“That’s kind of the ebbs and flows of the season so far,” Trupp said. “We play good when we’re down and when we’re up, we get a little complacent.”
He said the team is still trying to find a way to have the same “killer instinct” with the lead that they have when they fall behind.
While the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs is viewed as the biggest in the state, they have just as many heated battles with the Brown Bears, who are based in Soldotna.
“They definitely get overlooked when it comes to rivalry,” Trupp said. “This year they have a much better team. In Kenai, they have much better crowds than they did and they’re higher in the standings than they were last year. They’re not a team to overlook, that’s for sure.”
He said that their budding rivalry continues to build every time they get on the ice together.
Anchorage is playing Kenai for the second straight weekend as they continue the Club 49 Cup. The Wolverines swept the Brown Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex last Friday and Saturday and the two teams have become very familiar with one another.
“As the series continues on, you know each other’s tendencies and you know what to watch for,” Trupp said. “As far as pre-scouting stuff, these guys already know what to expect from what they play and tendencies from some of their players.”
Nikolayenya believes that it’s mentally easier to play the same team consecutively but admits the Brown Bears still present challenges physically with a lot of body checking.
With the win, the Brown Bears improved their overall point total in the NAHL to 33, while the Wolverines sit at 28.
The Wolverines will complete the third series of the season between the two teams on Saturday night at the same venue with a puck drop time of 7 p.m.
“I tell the guys quick memory, learn from their mistakes and be ready to go tomorrow because it’s a new day,” Trupp said.