PALMER - The Kenai River Brown Bears have been the comeback kings of the North American Hockey League West Division. But on Friday, it was time for the Alaska Avalanche to rally.
Alaska scored four unanswered goals and erased a pair of three-goal deficits to grab a thrilling 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Brown Bears at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
"Character and heart. Absolutely character and heart," Alaska assistant coach Josh Petrich said of the key to the Avs' comeback.
Forwards Evan Hesse, Cobi Smith-Mass and Jordan Watt each scored before the three-minute mark of the third period to help first-place Alaska improve to 19-9-1 overall and move five points head of second-place Fairbanks in the standings. Kenai River dropped to 16-8-1 and now sits six points behind the Avs. The rivals meet again Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
Kenai River built a 3-0 lead in the first period, led 4-1 early in the second and took a 4-2 lead into the third. Alaska came into the game with a 1-8-0 record when trailing after two periods. The Brown Bears on the ones used to rallying, with a 4-4-0 record when trailing after the second period. But the roles were reversed Friday.
Alaska scored the three third-period goals and outshot Kenai 15-6 during the final frame. But the key work came on special teams. Kenai River was 3 for 6 with the man advantage during the first two periods. But Alaska killed all five Brown Bear power plays during the third.
"We were willing to block shots," Petrich said. "So much of the penalty kill, especially up top, is willing to take it in the shin, willing to take it in the chest. We were willing."
Petrich said the types of shots the Avs took during the final two periods led to much better opportunities.
"Basically in the first period we didn't take one shot inside the house," Petrich said.
But during the second, and especially in the third, Alaska attacked the Kenai crease.
Alaska got on the scoreboard early in the second when defenseman Kristaps Bazevics put a shot from the point into the back of the net. After Kenai River took a 4-1 lead with its third power-play goal of the game, Brandon Brossoit crashed the net and cut the Bears' advantage in half.
Brossoit fell to the ice as he crashed, but managed to get enough of his stick on the puck to knock one in.
Hesse needed only 28 seconds to snap a wrister into the net early in the third. Less than a minute later, Mitch Kontney won a face off and fed Smith-Mass, who scored short-side from the left corner of the crease.
Alaska scored the game-winner at the 2:43 mark of the third. Gage Christianson skated the puck around the back of the net, from left to right, and centered a pass to Watt, who scored to give the Avs the 5-4 lead.
Kenai River used stellar special teams to stake the early lead.
"All four of their goals came on special teams. We've got to fix that," Petrich said.
Zac Lazzaro scored short-handed to give the Bears the early lead. Defenseman Ray Stenehjem knocked a shot off the post and into the net on the power play to give the Bears the 2-0 lead nine minutes into regulation.
Miikael Arkimo flipped a shot into the net from between the circles on another power-play chance later in the first.
"They definitely took advantage of every chance they got (in the first)," Petrich said.
Both teams chased opposing goalies from the game.
Alaska starter Bodhi Engum lasted only 17 minutes. He was replaced by Nick Kulmanovsky after allowing three goals. Kenai River starter Austin Severson was replaced after Alaska's three-goal surge early in the third. Paul Borbeau played much of the third period until he was issued a game misconduct for spearing with 44 seconds left in regulation.
Severson came back in to play the final 44 seconds of the game.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.
Alaska 5, Kenai River 4
Friday, MTA Events Center
First period - 1. Kenai River- Lazzaro (Wasell) sh 4:46; 2. Kenai River- Stenehjem (Frere, Lubanski) pp 9:00; 3. Kenai River- Arkimo (Ramsey) pp 17:06.
Second period - 4. Alaska- Bazevics (Hesse) 3:34; 5. Kenai River- Lubanski (Ramsey, Walker) pp 6:38; 6. Alaska- Brossoit (Watt, Hesse) 9:06.
Third period - 7. Alaska- Hesse (Schmitz) 0:28; 8. Alaska- Smith-Mass (Kontny) pp 1:13; 9. Alaska- Watt (Christianson, Schmitz) 2:43.
Shots on goal: Kenai River 6-10-6-22, Alaska 7-9-15-31; Power plays: Kenai River 3 for 11, Alaska 1 for 5.