When Friday's wild game finally ended near 11 p.m., Auston Severson's smile stretched across the rink.
Couldn't blame the Kenai River Brown Bears rookie goaltender.
Severson came up with four saves in as many tries to preserve a 5-4 shootout victory in his North American Hockey league debut, leading the Bears past the defending league champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs before 589 fans at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Saturday in front of 625, the Ice Dogs came back from a 2-0 deficit to notch a 3-2 victory.
Friday, after captain Brett Lubanski found the back of the net to give the Bears a 1-0 lead through three frames in the shootout, Severson made his fourth save to set up Miikael Arkimo's game winner.
"When Lubanski put it in, I went to the line and I was like, ‘This is it, it's do-or-die. I've got to make this save right here,'" Severson said, grinning. "He came in, poke-checked, and game over."
And just like that, the Bears put their first stamp on this young season.
All the sweeter was that it came against the Ice Dogs, who disposed of Kenai River with a three-game sweep in the first round of last year's playoffs.
"It's the most important game of the year," said an undersized Severson, who stands 5-foot-9. "Starting off with a win, there's nothing like it."
It didn't come easy.
Newcomers Christopher Nuth and Skyler McKnight and returning player Bobby Murphy each scored in the first period to give the Bears a commanding 3-0 lead, but the advantage quickly evaporated.
The Ice Dogs answered with three goals in the second and took a 4-3 lead on a JT Osborn goal with about six minutes left in the game.
That's when veteran returner Matt Thompson made one of the evening's biggest plays.
The 20-year-old skated along the boards on the right side, took the puck and cut between defenders to slide in a shot from close range as he fell to the ice with 1:27 to play.
Kenai River coach Oliver David said it was the type of play that can make Thompson, a power forward, as dangerous as any player on the ice.
"We have harped on him and harped on him to be what he is and take pride in that type of role," David said. "We have worked on that play since last August. It didn't happen enough last year and he knew it and he spent the summer thinking about it and he comes in after losing three games straight to Fairbanks to end his season, and the first game of the season he drives to the net and plows it in. That is a good, good effort."
The play saved the game for the Bears, who had lost all the momentum after charging out to a three-goal edge.
More exchanges like that from Thompson, and the Bears' second line will be as good as any in the league. Thompson plays alongside fellow returners Sean Muller and Murphy.
The first-liners are Lubanski, Arkimo and returner Alex Frere.
"I actually visualized it in the locker room the period before," said Thompson, who dropped to a knee and pumped his fist after finding the net. "Last year I would do it every so often, but wasn't very consistent. Every chance I get now, I'm driving the net and using my body to get in there."
Kenai River controlled the overtime session, peppering Fairbanks with five shots to provide a brief breather for Severson, who made 28 saves.
The game was stopped for more than 20 minutes late in overtime when Alex Temby of Fairbanks went down with an undisclosed injury. He was carried off on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. His status was unavailable immediately after the game.
After Muller and rookie Nick O'Donnell failed to score in the opening two frames of the shootout, Lubanski put the Bears up 1-0 with a nifty right-to-left move.
Another Severson save set up Arkimo, who beat the Fairbanks goalie with crisp shot to the right.
Save for a few defensive breakdowns that led to Ice Dogs goals, David was impressed with the Bears' debut performance.
"We really competed hard and guys cared about trying to create turnovers, and obviously we got pucks to the net," David said.
Osborn paced Fairbanks with a goal and an assist, while Pavlo Padakin also tallied a goal and an assist.
The Bears received points in regulation from seven different players, including three rookies.
David said the team understands what it takes to prevent goals like it did Friday.
And Severson, 18, is already looking forward to his next shootout situation.
"I love shootouts. I love the pressure," Severson said. "There's nothing better than it."
Saturday, the Brown Bears jumped out to a 2-0 lead only to see Fairbanks score three unanswered goals to win the game.
Jake Pollack got the scoring started for the Brown Bears in the first period on an assist from Austin Sture.
Just 1:51 into the second period, Sture lit the lamp on assists from Kellen Wasell and Pollack.
The Ice Dogs started their comeback midway through the second period when Alec Hajdukovich scored.
In the first 10 minutes of the third period, Pavio Padakin and Hajdukovich scored for the Ice Dogs to give them the lead.
The Brown Bears had plenty of chances in the third period. Kenai River was outshot 40-35 in the game, but outshot the Ice Dogs 18-9 in the final 20 minutes.
Kenai River had three power plays in the final period, while Fairbanks did not have any.
However, Fairbanks goalie Nick Heimer was up to the task, making 33 saves on the night. Paul Bourbeau had 37 saves for Kenai River.
The Brown Bears now travel to Minnesota to play in four straight games at the Schwans Super Rink.
Kenai River starts with a game against Aberdeen (Wash.) on Wednesday.
Kenai River returns home on Sept. 30 for a 7:30 p.m. game against the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla.
Brown Bears 5, Ice Dogs 4, SO
Fairbanks 0 3 1 0 -4
Kenai River 3 0 1 1 -5
First period - 1. Kenai River, Nuth (Sture), 9:52. 2. Kenai River, Murphy (Thompson, Muller), 11:31; 3. Kenai River, McKnight (Lubanski), 13:24. Penalties - Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period - 4. Fairbanks, Padakin (Osborn), 1:54. 5. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (Wolter), 12:58. 6. Fairbanks, Wendling (Romo, Wilson), 14:29. Penalties - Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period - 7. Fairbanks, Osborn (Padakin, Spratte), 14:11; 8. Kenai River, Thompson (Murphy), 18:33.
Penalties - Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime - No scoring.
Shootout - Fairbanks, JT Osborn, NG; Alec Hajdukovich, NG; Pavlo Padakin, NG; Colton Wolter, NG.
Kenai River - Sean Muller, NG; Nick O'Donnell, NG; Brett Lubanski, G; Miikael Arkimo, G.
Shots on goal - Fairbanks (6-18-7-1-0-32); Kenai River (8-9-8-5-1-31).
Goalies - Kenai River, Severson (32 shots, 28 saves); Fairbanks, Fons (8 shots, 5 saves), Heimer (23 shots, 22 saves).
Power plays - Fairbanks 1 for 5; Kenai River 0 for 5.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 0 1 2 -3
Kenai River 1 1 0 -2
First period - 1. Kenai River, Pollack (Sture), 5:27. Penalties - Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period - 2. Kenai River, Sture (Wasell, Pollack), 1:51. 3. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (Levin, Osborn), pp, 10:19. Penalties - Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Third period - 4. Fairbanks, Padakin (Osborn), 3:57; 5. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (un.), 7:58. Penalties - Fairbanks 3 for 8:00.
Shots on goal - Fairbanks 16-15-9-40; Kenai River 7-10-18-35.
Goalies - Fairbanks, Heimer (35 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Borbeau (40 shots, 37 saves).
Power plays - Fairbanks 1 for 6; Kenai River 0 for 5.