The Alaska Avalanche of Palmer swept a two-game series from the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday and Saturday at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
The Avs notched a 2-1 victory on Friday in front of 333 fans, then cruised to a 5-0 triumph on Saturday in front of 423.
The sweep put the Brown Bears, who have lost five of their last six games, three points behind the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters in the race for the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League West Division.
The Monsters concluded their Alaska road trip with a bang in Fairbanks, losing 5-4 in a shootout on Friday and defeating the first-place Ice Dogs 2-1 on Saturday. It is just the sixth loss at home for Fairbanks this season.
While the Avs gained some ground on the Ice Dogs by improving to 9-4-1 against Kenai River, second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) swept a two-game series from the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage, meaning the Avs were not able to make up any ground in the battle for second place.
Wenatchee clinched a playoff berth with the sweep.
The Ice Dogs now lead the division with 79 points, while the Wild have 74, the Avs have 68, the Monsters have 60 and the Brown Bears have 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 after Friday’s game. “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 the weekend series, but the Avs quickly took control of Friday’s game.
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.
Saturday, the Avs once again rolled up a big advantage in shots, winning that battle 34-15. This time, however, that disparity also showed up on the scoreboard.
Brandon Brossoit scored in the first period for the Avs, and Codey Hansen, Fahlstedt and Patrick Kinkopf lit the lamp in the second period to give the Avs control of the game.
Connor Wright completed the scoring with a minute to play.
Bodhi Engum had 15 saves for the shutout, while Severson made 29 saves for the Bears.
Petrich said Friday 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 93 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.”
The Avs travel to Fairbanks for a three-game series with the Ice Dogs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Thursday game is at 7 p.m., while the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
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.
The Brown Bears host the last-place Rage in a three-game series Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The puck drops at 7:05 p.m. Thursday, while the games start at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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.
Avalanche 5, Brown Bears 0
First period — 1. Alaska, Brossoit (Bisbing), 12:58. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Alaska 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Alaska, Hansen (un.), 8:07; 3. Alaska, Fahlstedt (Hansen, Bergh), 11:56; 4. Alaska, Kinkopf (Novakovich), 16:58. Penalties — Alaska 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Alaska, Wright (un.), 19:00. Penalties — Alaska 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 5-3-7—15; Alaska 11-15-8—34.
Goalies — Kenai River, Severson (34 shots, 29 saves); Alaska, Engum (15 shots, 15 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 4; Alaska 0 for 1.