The Kenai River Brown Bears lost Friday and Saturday games to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Big Dipper Ice Arena to fall into a tie for the final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League West Division.
The Bears lost 5-4 on Friday in front of 2,199 fans and 4-2 on Saturday in front of 2,242 fans.
Kenai River went into the weekend two games ahead of the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters in the race for the playoff spot.
Fresno lost to the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer 3-0 on Friday, but the Monsters topped the Avs 4-3 on Saturday to make up two points on the Brown Bears.
The Bears and Monsters play what should amount to a giant two-game series this week at the Soldotna Sports Center. The games start Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:05 p.m.
After that, the Brown Bears have just seven regular season games left.
“It’s not necessarily a make or break for the season, but it is a swing series,” Brown Bears coach Oliver David said.
Kenai River is now 26-22-3, while the Ice Dogs improve to 35-11-7, seven points ahead of the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the race for the division title.
The Ice Dogs, the defending league champions, improved to 16-5-2 at home this year after going 21-7-1 at home last year.
The Bears are 1-4 in Fairbanks this year, and 4-7 against the Ice Dogs overall. In three years as coach, David said he has won just four games in Fairbanks.
“It’s like being in a division with the Red Wings or Yankees,” David said. “We’re trying to build into something of the same caliber.
“From me as a coach down through the roster, if you look at the standings and the win-loss column, we have not proven to be an equal opponent.”
The Ice Dogs are now riding a seven-game winning streak. David said Fairbanks may be even better this year than last year.
“They’re more poised,” David said. “They don’t have any worry on their faces. They’re confident, and that’s easy to see in the way they play.”
On Friday, Tayler Munson and Rudy Sulmonte each had three points to lead Fairbanks, and the two got started early. 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, 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 had 30 saves for Kenai River, while Alex Fons made 18 saves for Fairbanks.
On Saturday, the Ice Dogs started quickly again, outshooting the Bears 13-4 in the first period en route to a 33-26 advantage for the game.
Pavlo Padakin scored just 3:28 into the game. Hajdukovich added a power-play goal with 4:49 left in the first period.
The Bears used special teams to forge a tie in the second period. Muller scored a short-handed goal and Lubanski scored on the power play to tie the game at 2 heading into the third period.
“Our special teams has really seemed to turn the corner in the last six games,” David said.
David said the Bears had some great chances to take the lead in the first 12 minutes of the third period.
With 7:59 left, Max Birkinbine, who had three points on the night, scored for a 3-2 lead.
David said the Bears were just inches from poke-checking that goal out of danger.
Just 51 seconds later, Logan Wendling made a great one-on-one move for a 4-2 lead.
The Bears were missing three players in the game due to injuries.
“We threw everything we had at them and were eight minutes away from a well-deserved point but it did not happen,” David said.
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.
Ice Dogs 4, Brown Bears 2
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Padakin (Birkinbine, Spratte), 3:28; 2. Fairbanks, Hadjukovich (Osborn, Levin), pp, 15:11. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Muller (Stempin), sh, 2:23; 4. Kenai River, Lubanski (Lazzaro), pp, 19:46. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 5. Fairbanks, Birkinbine (Padakin, Spratte), 12:01; 6. Fairbanks, Wendling (Birkinbine), 12:52. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 4-12-10—26; Fairbanks 13-10-10— 33.
Goalies — Kenai River, Severson (33 shots, 29 saves); Fairbanks, Perry (26 shots, 24 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 6; Fairbanks 1 for 4.