It’s been a tough December, but the Kenai River Brown Bears have some momentum heading into a three-week holiday break.
Kenai River ended a three-game losing steak with a 5-4 shootout victory over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in front of 781 fans Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The win gives the Bears a record of 17-10-1 and 35 points in the North American Hockey League West Division. They are tied with the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters for third place. Fairbanks holds second at 16-7-7, good for 39 points, while the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer lead the way at 22-9-2, good for 46 points.
The Bears are off until Jan. 6.
Kenai River nearly collapsed Saturday.
The Bears allowed two goals in six seconds inside the final minute, allowing the Ice Dogs to even the score after trailing 4-2.
The goals came after Ryan Walker was called for an infraction, putting Fairbanks on the power play.
But Brett Lubanski and Conor Deal found the back of the net in the shootout, and goaltender Austin Severson stopped all but one shot to preserve the win.
Coming off a 6-2 loss Friday that extended their losing streak to a season-long three games, another loss Saturday — especially after holding a two-goal lead in the final minute — would have been crushing.
Not only did the Bears need the win to keep pace in the standings, but they needed a morale boost.
The team lost goaltender Paul Bourbeau for at least two months because of a broken collarbone sustained Friday. First-year defenseman Kiel Zornow will undergo season-ending knee surgery next week. And fellow defenseman Brandon Fisher, a Soldotna product, recently left the team.
What it means is the roster will be shuffled during the break in action. Brown Bears coach Oliver David said the team is looking to improve in all areas, which it must do to remain competitive in NAHL West.
“I honestly think we are getting passed up because teams are getting better,” the coach said. “We’re getting better, I think, but not at the same rate.”
David said he hopes to add at least one forward, and possibly two, as well as solidify the defense. The team also needs a goalie to join Severson.
And those who aren’t contributing won’t have a spot on the roster following the holiday break.
“We’re going to look to make changes over the break and get ready for the second half, just like every team is,” David said.
“Guys get a good long leash and time to develop and some guys, I think it’s become apparent, aren’t keeping up. We’re in a race where we can’t really afford to have guys not keeping up.”
Saturday, Matt Thompson scored twice for the Bears to pull the team even after it fell behind 2-0. Lubanski and Alex Frere had the other two goals.
But with 46 seconds to play, trailing by two, Fairbanks cut the lead in half on the one-man advantage. Six seconds later, Pete Spratte tied the game at 4.
There was far less drama in the Ice Dogs’ 6-2 triumph before 551 at the sports center Friday.
Thompson made it 1-0 with the Bears on the power play when he scooped up a rebound and poked the puck past Ice Dogs goaltender Alex Fons at the 8:40 mark of the first. Raymond Stenehjem and Bobby Murphy earned assists.
However, that would be the Bears’ only lead.
Less than a minute later, JT Osborn finished assists from Gabe Levin and Garret Clemment at even strength to even the score at 1.
Jeff Earnest gave the Ice Dogs a 2-1 lead when he got into open space and finished assists from Alec Hajdukovich and Russell Finch with 18:48 remaining in the second.
The lead ballooned to 3-1 when Spratte sent a crisp right-to-left cross to Max Birkinbine, who beat Bourbeau.
Bourbeau, who finished with 19 saves on 22 shots, was pulled after the play for Severson. David said Bourbeau may have sustained the broken collarbone in warmups before Friday’s game.
Kenai River sliced into the lead when Zac Lazzaro sent a left-handed shot off the body of Fons. The puck took a fortuitous bounce onto the stick of Chris Nuth, who buried a one-timer with 8:00 left in the period. Lazzaro and Kellen Wasell earned assists.
Fairbanks regained a two-goal edge with 2:38 to play in the second when Clemment converted on a two-on-one break, finishing assists from Levin and Justin Woods.
The dagger came with 7:10 remaining in the final frame as Logan Wendling beat Severson to give the Ice Dogs a 5-2 lead. Jakob Romo and Sean O’Rourke earned assists.
Spratte finished the scoring with a goal on the power play with less than five seconds to play.
“They played a good game, but we played better than two goals,” David said of Friday’s contest. “They just managed to capitalize. They have a lot of speed. That’s just what they are capable of doing.”
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 1 3 2 —6
Kenai River 1 1 0 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Thompson (Murphy, Stenehjem), pp, 11:20; 2. Fairbanks, Osborn (Clemment, Levin), 12:03. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Fairbanks, Earnest (Finch, Hajdukovich), 1:12; 4. Fairbanks, Birkinbine (Spratte, Hinz), 5:20; 5. Kenai River, Nuth (Lazzaro, Wasell), 12:00; 6. Fairbanks, Clemment (Levin, Woods), 17:22. Penalties — none.
Third period — 7. Fairbanks, Wendling (Romo, O’Rourke), 12:50; 8. Fairbanks, Spratte (Birkinbine, Racklin), 19:57. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 5 for 10:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks (16-10-12—38); Kenai River (8-6-5—19).
Goalies — Kenai River, Bourbeau (22 shots, 19 saves), Severson (16 shots, 13 saves); Fairbanks, Fons (19 shots, 17 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 2.
Brown Bears 5, Ice Dogs 4 SO
Fairbanks 2 0 2 0 0 —4
Kenai River 0 3 1 0 1 —5
First period — Fairbanks, Hinz (Hajdukovich, Munson), 1:46; 2. Fairbanks, Levin (Clemment, Woods), 11:39. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Frere (Walker, Lubanski), pp, 2:10; 4. Kenai River, Thompson (unassisted), 15:36; 5. Kenai River, Thompson (Lubanski, Frere), pp, 18:07. Penalties — Fairbanks 7 for 17:00; Kenai River 5 for 13:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Lubanski (Sture, Frere), pp, 10:59; 7. Fairbanks, Spratte (Levin, Hajdukovich), pp, 19:14; 8. Fairbanks, Levin (Hajdukovich, O’Rourke), pp, 19:20. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Overtime — no scoring. Penalties — none.
Fairbanks — Hajdukovich, no; Osborn, no; O’Rourke, yes; Levin, no; Munson, no.
Kenai River — Lubanski, yes; Muller, no; Deal, yes; Lazzaro, no.
Goaltenders — Fairbanks, Perry (36 shots, 32 saves); Kenai River, Severson (29 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 2 for 8; Kenai River 3 for 8.