The Kenai River Brown Bears scored three goals in the final 11:22 of the game to defeat the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 5-4 on Wednesday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
“We needed a regulation win and it was an extremely exciting game,” Brown Bears coach Oliver David said after the comeback in front of 923 fans.
The Bears entered the night two points behind the Monsters in the race for the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League West Division.
Fresno had taken that two-point lead with a 6-2 blowout of the Bears on Tuesday.
David was so disappointed with the effort of his team that he brought the Bears back out to skate lines after the game.
“Last night we let a lot of fans down that took the time to track down free tickets and come to the game,” David said. “I felt embarrassed, to be honest.
“I think a lot of players did, as well. If they didn’t, I’m sure they got the message in the fourth period last night.”
The Bears are now 27-23-3, which matches the franchise record for wins in a season. Fresno is 24-21-9.
Kenai River has seven games left — four against the third-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer and three against the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage.
Fresno has six games left — two against the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs and four against the second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild.
“Winning the season series and having more wins than Fresno at this point are all positives for us,” David said. “In the end, it still comes down to who has the most points.”
David thought the Bears came out flying Wednesday, but it was Fresno that took the upper hand in the game when Mikhail Bushinski scored just 2 minutes, 4 seconds in.
“They scored in the first five minutes of each period,” David said. “Those things are tough to overcome.”
Brett Lubanski, on assists from Sean Muller and Chris Blessing, tied the game at 1. Lubanski would have four points on the night to increase his career total with the Bears to 151, by far the most in franchise history.
“He just passed 150 points as a junior hockey player,” David said. “Not many three-year players reach that point total. It’s quite the landmark.”
The Bears took the lead when Blessing, who had three points, scored a power-play goal on assists from Lubanski and Jesse Ramsey, who would tally three points.
Kenai River then let Fresno come back to take the lead with some sloppy play.
Just 35 seconds into the second period, a blue-line turnover led to a breakaway goal by Luke Sandler.
Then, 3:24 into the third, another blue-line turnover led to a two-on-none and another Sandler goal for a 3-2 Fresno lead.
When Jesse Durfee gave Fresno a 4-2 lead with 14:09 to play, the Bears were staring a four-point deficit in the playoff race in the face.
Conor Deal, on assists from Zac Lazzaro and Kellen Patrick, started the comeback with a goal with 11:22 left.
Ramsey scored with 4:42 left on assists from Blessing and Lubanski. Raymond Stenehjem then notched the game-winner on a power-play goal with 2:51 to play. Ramsey and Lubanski assisted.
David said it is no accident that Stenehjem, Ramsey and Lubanski — three players who have been with the club for three years and are in their last year of eligibility — were involved in the crucial scores.
At the same time, the coach said it was a team effort.
He said the most effective line was the Lazzaro, Deal and Kellen Wasell group. He said Lazarro was his player of the game.
“We threw that line together with three rookies because of the situation last night,” David said. “We needed a speedy line willing to skate hard.”
Austin Severson made 19 saves to record his 20th victory for the Bears this year. He is the first goalie in franchise history to reach that mark.
Tomas Sholl had 25 saves for the Monsters.
Kenai River plays in Palmer on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Brown Bears 5, Monsters 4
First period — 1. Fresno, Bushinski (Bradley, Bittner), 2:04; 2. Kenai River, Lubanski (Muller, Blessing), 8:14; 3. Kenai River, Blessing (Lubanski, Ramsey), pp, 10:16. Penalties — Fresno 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Fresno, Sandler (Doner), 0:35. Penalties — Fresno 5 for 18:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Fresno, Sandler (Pauluk), 3:24; 6. Fresno, Durfee (Haskell), 5:51; 7. Kenai River, Deal (Lazzaro, Patrick), 8:38; 8. Kenai River, Ramsey (Blessing, Lubanski), 15:18; 9. Kenai River, Stenehjem (Ramsey, Lubanski), pp, 17:09. Penalties — Fresno 6 for 20:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Fresno 9-8-6—23; Kenai River 13-8-9—30.
Goalies — Fresno, Sholl (30 shots, 25 saves); Severson (23 shots, 19 saves).
Power plays -— Fresno 0 for 2; Kenai River 2 for 8.