The Alaska Avalanche of Palmer made an early lead stand up in a 2-1 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday in front of 333 fans at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
The loss knocked the Bears a point behind the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters in the race for the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League West Division.
The Bears and Monsters came into the night tied, but Fresno notched a point in a 5-4 shootout loss at first-place Fairbanks.
"Fairbanks is obviously on an upswing," Kenai River coach Oliver David said after the Bears lost for the fourth time in five tries. "Fresno must have given them a run for their money. We haven't been able to do that against them in Fairbanks."
With Fairbanks winning and the second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild topping Dawson Creek (British Columbia) 4-1, the Avs were not able to make up any ground in the West.
Fairbanks leads the division with 79 points, while Wenatchee has 72, Alaska has 66, Fresno has 58 and Kenai River has 57.
"It's obvious with Fairbanks that unless they lose out, and we win out, it's going to be tough to catch them," Alaska assistant Josh Petrich said. "But with Wenatchee, we're sitting six points back with two games in hand. Second place is still a real goal."
Alaska had won just one game in five tries heading into Friday, but the Avs quickly took control of the game early to improve to 8-4-1 against Kenai River this year.
Just 4 minutes, 19 seconds, in, Tanner Fahlstedt scored on the power play on assists from Wehebe Darge and Evan Janssen.
Petrich said there was a scrum in front of the net, and the puck popped out to Fahlstedt in the slot. Fahlstedt buried the shot for his fourth goal and sixth point in seven games with the Avs.
Alaska kept on rolling with 5:01 to play in the first when Gage Christianson scored on assists from Mitch Kontny and Jordan Watt.
Petrich said that after a Kenai River turnover in the neutral zone, Watt worked the puck to Kontny to create a two-on-two. Konty passed to Christianson, who beat Austin Severson on the short side for his 12th goal of the season.
David said the Bears defenders gave up too much space on the two-on-two.
"It was a great shot," Petrich said. "The biggest thing we preach all the time is to take a quick shot. That's what he did and he caught the goalie off guard a little."
Kenai River made it 2-1 when Chris Blessing scored unassisted on the power play with 3:34 left in the first period. Blessing now has four goals and 14 assists in 18 games.
David said Blessing's goal was similar to Alaska's power-play goal — with both teams whacking at the puck in front of the net and the Brown Bears managing to put it in.
In the second and third periods, Severson and Alaska goalie Nick Kulmanovsky kept clean sheets. Severson finished with 29 saves, while Kulmanovksy had 13 saves.
David said he didn't think the Avs outshot the Brown Bears by the official tally of 31-14, but Petrich said the Avs' shot chart had Alaska up 36-10 after two periods.
Nevertheless, both coaches said neither team dominated.
"I thought it was a pretty even game for the most part," Petrich said. "There were definitely periods where we had 10 or 15 minutes in total control, but we haven't generated a lot of shots during those times."
Despite the low score, both coaches also agreed that it wasn't a goaltender's duel.
"We didn't create a lot of anxiety for them, and I don't feel like they were extremely threatening, either," David said.
The same two teams play Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the MTA Events Center.
Petrich said that regardless of the standings, Alaska has to keep playing solid hockey as it prepares for the playoffs. With probable first-round opponent Wenatchee having yielded only 91 goals this season, any errors will be costly.
"The biggest thing is we have to keep playing the game the right way," Petrich said. "We have to do the little things right when we get in the playoffs."
Kenai River will resume chasing Fresno. David said many players are sick right now, so he said energetic performances like those of Alex Frere, Zac Lazzaro, Kellen Wasell and Conor Deal on Friday are important.
"The name of the game right now is how much energy we have to start the game, and how much energy we're willing to put forth during the game," David said.
Avalanche 2, Brown Bears 1
First period — 1. Alaska, Fahlstedt (Darge, Janssen), pp, 4:19; 2. Alaska, Christianson (Kontny, Watt), 14:59; 3. Kenai River, Blessing (un.), pp, 16:26. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Alaska 2 for 4:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Alaska 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Alaska 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 5-3-6—14; Alaska 13-12-6—31.
Goalies — Kenai River, Severson (31 shots, 29 saves); Alaska, Kulmanovsky (14 shots, 13 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 4; Alaska 1 for 6.