As is the case for a lot of subzero-weary Alaskans right now, maybe this isn't the worst time for the Kenai River Brown Bears to take a trip south.
The Brown Bears fell to the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer 3-2 on Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center in front of 850 fans. The Brown Bears have now lost five straight North American Hockey League contests.
All of those losses have come to the Avalanche and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Alaska is riding high atop the West Division with a 27-12-3 record. Fairbanks is eight points behind the Avs in second.
The Brown Bears are now 18-15-1, three points out of fourth place and a playoff spot.
For the Brown Bears, the Avalanche and Ice Dogs have been as oppressive as the temperatures. Kenai River has played its last 12 games against the two Alaska clubs, dating back to Nov. 25. The Brown Bears are 3-9 in those contests.
After the game, the team left for a road trip that begins in sunny Fresno, Calif., with 6:05 p.m. AST games on Sunday and Monday. The trip continues with two games in Wenatchee, Wash., and three in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
Earlier this season, the Bears went 6-0-1 on a road trip to those three cities. The forecast Sunday in Fresno calls for a high of 56.
California, here they come.
"The Fresno trip will be tiresome to deal with, but we've been pretty good on the road," said Kenai River head coach Oliver David, whose squad is 9-5-1 on the road and 9-10-0 at home. "Hopefully, it will be that way again."
David said getting points on the road is important, because when the Brown Bears return, the red-hot Avalanche will be waiting. After the road trip, Kenai River has 19 games left in the season. Eight of those will be against the Avalanche.
David said Friday's game showed why the Avs are so tough, with a few tough bounces deciding the contest.
The top tough bounce on David's list came with the Bears down 1-0 in the second period. Goalie Austin Severson went behind the net and lost the puck to the Avs, leading to an easy short-handed goal for Kevin Novakovich.
Severson has been in net for all five of the Bears' recent losses.
"I don't know what happened there," David said. "He tried to play the puck and they ended up with it. There wasn't anybody in front of the net for us because there isn't supposed to be anybody in front of the net for us in that situation."
The play punctuated a good series on special teams for the Avs, who got their first goal Friday on a power-play tally from Joe Schmitz. Alaska was 3 for 8 with the extra man in the two-game set, while the Bears were 0 for 13.
Alaska coach Corey Millen said his team started slow after the Christmas break, going 3-2 on a Wenatchee-Dawson-Fresno swing.
"We came off a long Christmas break," he said. "It was a week longer than most teams had. We weren't playing as well as we had.
"We're starting to play better."
The Bears fought back after falling in the 2-0 hole. With 11:14 left in the second period, Bobby Murphy passed to Brett Lubanski to create a two-on-one. Lubanski showed good patience in slipping the puck past the defender and across the front of the net, and all Conor Deal had to do was hit an open goal. It was Deal's third goal in 13 games, and Lubanski's 28th assist and 39th point in 34 games.
With 3:59 left in the second, Kellen Wasell tied the game with his second goal of the year. Wasell kept swatting at the puck until it somehow fit between the pad of Alaska goalie Nick Kulmanovsky and the pipe. Skyler McKnight and Dominic Granato had assists.
"Wasell really battled, and we did a good job with that all night," David said. "We did a good job getting pucks to the net."
The game-winner came with 12:19 left in the third period. Connor Wright passed the puck to Ross Pavek. Pavek was not even facing the net, but he one-timed a pass backward and through his legs across the front of the goal to Jeff Bergh, who fought for the rubber and poked it into the net.
The Bears, who outshot the Avs 8-3 in the third period en route to an 18-all draw for the night, pressed hard for an equalizer in the last 10 minutes. With 7:20 left, Kenai River had a three-on-one, but Kulmanovsky made the save. Kenai River also had a power play with 3:03 left and went the final minute with an extra attacker, but Kulmanovsky was able to turn away several big blasts.
"He shut them down at the end," Millen said. "We gave up some opportunities I was not in love with, but he shut them down."
David said those last 10 minutes showed why Alaska is on top of the division.
"We really turned it on and put the pedal to the metal, but they rose to the challenge," he said.
Avalanche 3, Brown Bears 2
First period — none. Penalties — Alaska 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 1. Alaska, Schmitz (Christianson), pp, 3:59; 2. Alaska, Novakovich (Darge), sh, 6:10; 3. Kenai River, Deal (Lubanski, Murphy), 8:46; 4. Kenai River, Wasell (McKnight, Granato), 16:01. Penalties — Alaska 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Alaska, Bergh (Pavek, Wright), 7:41. Penalties — Alaska 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Alaska 7-8-3—18; Kenai River 3-7-8—18.
Goalies — Alaska, Kulmanovsky (18 shots, 16 saves); Kenai River, Severson (18 shots, 15 saves).
Power plays — Alaska 1 for 4, Kenai River 0 for 6.