The Kenai River Brown Bears lost a 5-4 decision to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Friday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, but stayed two points ahead of the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters in the playoff race.
The Monsters were defeated 3-0 on Friday by the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer.
Kenai River, at 26-21-3, remains in fourth place in the North American Hockey League West Division. The Ice Dogs, the defending league champions, lead the division with a 34-11-7 record and 75 points.
The Brown Bears and Ice Dogs play Saturday at 7:30 p.m., as do the Avs and Monsters.
"As you're running a marathon, you look over your shoulder now and again," Kenai River coach Oliver David said. "Tonight, the distance stays the same.
"It's almost insanity, but tomorrow we do the same thing all over again. It's a gut-wrenching time. You hope you can take care of your part of the deal and maybe break away from the pack."
In order to do that, the Bears will have to solve the Ice Dogs at the Big Dipper. Fairbanks is 15-5-2 at home after going 21-7-1 at home last year. The Brown Bears are 1-3 in Fairbanks this year, and 4-6 against the Ice Dogs overall.
David said some of the best teams in the league have been swept in Fairbanks this year.
"It's tough to crack that code," David said. "The guy who can do that is ahead of the game. I haven't figured it out."
The Ice Dogs are now riding a six-game winning streak, while the Bears saw a three-game winning streak and four-game point streak come to an end.
Tayler Munson and Rudy Sulmonte each had three points to lead Fairbanks, and the two got started early on Friday. Munson scored on assists from Garret Clemment and Sulmonte just 1 minute, 14 seconds, into the game.
Then, 4:22 in, JT Osborn gave the Ice Dogs a 2-0 lead with a power-play goal.
"We played catchup the whole game," David said. "It's too hard to play catchup for 55 minutes against them."
Jesse Ramsey, on assists from Dominic Granato and Ryan Walker, cut the gap to 2-1 midway through the first period.
Alec Hajdukovich gave Fairbanks a 3-1 cushion with 5:05 left in the second period, but Anthony Stempin, on assists from Sean Muller and Ryan Walker, cut the gap to one again with 1:39 left in the second period.
Fairbanks had a 26-14 advantage on shots in the first two periods, and outshot the Bears 35-22 in the game.
In the third period, Fairbanks jumped out to a 5-2 lead on goals by Evan Wilson and Munson.
The Bears cut it to 5-3 with 7:47 to play when Conor Deal scored on assists from Chris Blessing and Brett Lubanski. Then with 1:25 left, Sean Muller, on assists from Matt Thompson and Ramsey, scored with an extra attacker out on the power play.
"We gave the defending national champ the best fight we could," David said. "A lot of things didn't go our way, but we still figured out a way to score four goals."
Austin Severson, now 19-13-3, had 30 saves for Kenai River, while Alex Fons made 18 saves for Fairbanks to improve to 17-4-2.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 4
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Munson (Clemment, Sulmonte), 1:14; 2. Fairbanks, Osborn (Racklin, ORourke), pp, 4:22; 3. Kenai River, Ramsey (Granato, Walker), 11:15. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (Levin, Wilson), 14:55; 5. Kenai River, Stempin (Muller, Walker), 18:21. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 6. Fairbanks, Wilson (Sulmonte, Munson), 5:10; 7. Fairbanks, Munson (Clemment, Sulmonte), 8:16; 8. Kenai River, Deal (Blessing, Lubanski), 12:13; 9. Kenai River, Muller (Thompson, Ramsey), pp, ea, 18:35. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 11-3-8—22; Fairbanks 16-10-9—35.
Goalies — Kenai River, Severson (35 shots, 30 saves); Fairbanks, Fons (22 shots, 18 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 4; Fairbanks 1 for 4.