With 6 minutes, 46 seconds, left to play in the second period Friday, Kenai River captain Brett Lubanski cruised across center ice on one skate, head cocked to the roof, howling like an animal.
Lubanski had just ripped an exquisitely placed slap shot past Fairbanks Ice Dogs goalie Steve Perry, sparking a Brown Bears feeding frenzy that would lead to a 4-1 North American Hockey League victory Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center in front of 857 fans.
The Brown Bears then lost Saturday 6-3 to the Ice Dogs. With the loss, Kenai River fell to 18-11-1 and fifth place in the West Division, just one point behind Wenatchee (Wash.) and Fresno (Calif.). Fairbanks improved to 19-8-7 and is four points behind league leader Alaska Avalanche of Palmer.
“I’m not normally like that,” said Lubanski on Friday after the Bears topped the Ice Dogs in regulation for the first time in seven tries this season. “I really felt that we could build some momentum off that goal — that I could get the guys fired up.
“That’s what ended up happening.”
At the time of Lubanski’s goal, Kenai River was down 1-0 and both teams were having trouble building momentum.
Then Lubanski, a lefty, collected the puck at the blue line, took a few powerful strides up the left side of the ice, wound up and unleashed a shot that sailed perfectly into the upper far corner.
Kenai River coach Oliver David said he doubted his captain was aiming for that exact spot. The captain fessed up.
“I would say I was shooting in the top-right vicinity,” he said of his 11th goal of the year. “I can’t say I was aiming for that exact spot — back bar or whatever it was.”
That shot would start a stretch where the Brown Bears scored on three of four shifts.
Just 20 seconds later, Matt Thompson got a pass from Sean Muller, beat a defender, and scored with his backhand. It was Thompson’s fifth goal of the year against the Ice Dogs and his ninth overall.
With 4:08 left in the period, Jesse Ramsey fired a shot off the boards and it bounced to Kellen Patrick in front of the net. Patrick poked in his first goal of the year.
“I thought we were playing pretty well in the second period up to that point,” Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart said. “The next thing I know, 2 1/2 minutes later it’s 3-1.
“That (Lubanski goal) definitely sparked them.”
Despite the game-changing play by Lubanski, both captain and coach said the win was due to goalie Austin Severson.
Severson got off to an inauspicious start, giving up a goal to Sean ORourke on a floater from the point just 32 seconds into the game.
“I just got screened,” Severson said. “I didn’t see it.”
After missing the first shot of the night, Severson would see 44 more and stop all of them. Kenai River had 29 shots on goal.
“The more shots I have, the better I play,” Severson said.
His goaltending was most valuable in the third period, keeping the Brown Bears from falling victim to deja vu.
Kenai River had a golden opportunity to beat the Ice Dogs in regulation in the last game before the break, but coughed up a two-goal lead in the final minute due to two power-play, extra-attacker goals. The Brown Bears would win in a shootout.
Friday, Bobby Murphy scored on the power play with 12:25 to play on assists from Austin Sture and Lubanski for a 4-1 game.
But starting at the 11:16 mark, the Brown Bears took three penalties in the next 2:48 to give the Ice Dogs and their top-ranked power play an opening. Fairbanks was 5-on-3 for 1:26.
Severson was up to the task during the barrage that followed. The highlight was a puck he snared out of the air as it was floating over his head toward the goal.
David was not happy with the penalties, but was happy with the goalie.
“He’s definitely my first star of the night,” the coach said.
Lubanski said Severson had great rebound control. Combine that with Kenai River’s defensive zone coverage, which Lubanski said the team worked on all week, and it adds up to 59:28 of scoreless hockey.
“I think Oliver was probably prouder of our defensive zone coverage than anything,” Lubanski said.
After Friday’s game, Stewart said he would have liked to see his team be more aggressive finishing in front of the net. When asked if the Ice Dogs would fix that for Saturday, he said, “I hope so.”
The Ice Dogs did just that in front of 799 fans.
Fairbanks jumped out to a 5-0 lead on goals by JT Osborn, Garret Clemment, Max Birkinbine, Alec Hajdukovich and Pavlo Padakin. Padakin scored for the 5-0 lead with 10:36 left in the second period.
Kenai River cut the lead to 5-2 when Conor Deal, on assists from Dominic Granato and Raymond Stenehjem, and Thompson, on an assist from Lubanski, scored.
After Gabe Levin scored for the Ice Dogs, Alex Frere, on an assist from Zac Lazzaro, scored in the third period.
Alex Fons had 21 saves for the Ice Dogs, while Severson had 25 saves for the Brown Bears.
The same two teams play Friday and Saturday in Fairbanks at 7:30 p.m.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 1
First period — 1. Fairbanks, ORourke (Birkinbine), 0:32. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Lubanski (un.), 13:14; 3. Kenai River, Thompson (Muller), 14:34; 4. Kenai River, Patrick (Ramsey), 15:50. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Murphy (Sture, Lubanski), pp, 7:35. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 17-13-15—45; Kenai River 15-7-7—29.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Perry (29 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Severson (45 shots, 44 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 5; Kenai River 1 for 4.
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 3
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Osborn (Hinz), 7:50. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Clemment (Osborn, Racklin), 4:28; 3. Fairbanks, Birkinbine (Padakin), 5:25; 4. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (Levin), 8:39; 5. Fairbanks, Padakin (Woods), 9:24; 6. Kenai River, Deal (Granato, Stenehjem), 12:19; 7. Kenai River, Thompson (Lubanski), 18:00; 8. Fairbanks, Levin (Osborn), 18:24. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 9:00; Kenai River 3 for 9:00.
Third period — 9. Kenai River, Frere (Lazzaro), 8:09. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 13-11-7—31; Kenai River 6-9-9—24.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Fons (24 shots, 21 saves); Kenai River, Severson (31 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 4.