PALMER — Sean Muller took control of the play early in the overtime and now the Kenai River Brown Bears are in control of the race for the fourth and final North American Hockey League West Division playoff berth.
Muller beat three Alaska players and scored just more than two minutes into the extra period to give the Bears a 3-2 overtime win over the Alaska Avalanche at the MTA Events Center in Palmer on Friday.
Muller’s goal lifted Kenai River to 30-25-4 overall and with 64 points. The Bears now sit in a fourth-place tie with the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters.
“We’re in the driver’s seat,” Kenai River head coach Oliver David said after the victory.
Fresno sat two points ahead of Kenai River heading into action Friday night, but suffered a 6-0 loss at Wenatchee. Fresno plays at Wenatchee again Saturday at 6:05 p.m. ADT, and the Brown Bears cap their regular season Saturday against the Avalanche in Palmer at 7:30 p.m.
Kenai River owns the tiebreaker among the two West Division rivals — due to having more wins than the Monsters — and has the most ways to clinch that final berth.
“We're in on a tie. If this was it tonight, we’re in,” David said. “Tomorrow, we win, they win, we’re in. They lose, we lose, we’re in.”
The only scenario that would keep Kenai River out of the playoffs would be Fresno getting more points than the Bears on Saturday — whether it be with a Fresno win and Kenai River loss, or a Fresno overtime loss and a Kenai River loss in regulation.
Alaska, meanwhile, stays in third place with the loss. The Avs (35-19-5) have 75 points in the standings, two shy of second-place Wenatchee (35-17-7). Alaska can move into a second-place tie with the Wild with a win and a Wenatchee regulation loss Saturday. A loss in overtime would give the Wild the extra point to clinch second place. If the Avs can force the tie, they would get second place because they would have one more win than the Wild.
With second place on the line, the Wild will have plenty for which to play when the puck drops against the Monsters. That's important because a regulation win by the Wild clinches Kenai River a playoff spot.
Kenai River scored twice in the third period to force overtime Friday and Muller supplied the game-winner at the 2:25 mark.
The Anchorage native beat three Avalanche players to take the puck deep into the Avs defensive zone. As he powered toward the right side of the crease, Muller was able to reach his stick around an Avs defenseman and goalie Nick Kulmanovsky to swing the puck into the net.
“The overtime goal was outstanding, a skilled play by our most skilled forward,” David said. “He beat a guy off the wall, beat a guy in front of the net and beat the goalie. He had three 1-on-1s and he won them all.”
Marek Hemsky and Matt Thompson also scored for Kenai. In both cases, the Brown Bears cashed in on opportunities in the Avs defensive zone.
Early in the third, Hemsky tied the score at 1, scoring off a Chris Blessing rebound. Blessing picked up a turnover, and put a shot on goal from between the circles. Hemsky was there to knock the loose puck in.
Late in the third, Kenai tied the score at 2. The Bears threw the puck on net. The puck took a couple bounces, and glanced into the net.
“We got lucky, got a couple of bounces, but we did what we needed to do. We threw pucks at the net,” David said. “Our whole point was to get traffic in front of Kulmanovsky. We did that.”
Alaska used a rebound score to take a 1-0 lead late in the first. Evan Hesse led an odd-man rush across the Kenai blue line and moved a puck to Connor Wright, who put a shot on goal. The puck bounced to the right side of the crease and Cobi Smith-Mass was there to knock in the rebound.
Midway through the third, Tanner Fahlstedt gave the Avs the 2-1 lead. Kevin Novakovich sped the puck up the left side of the ice, faked a shot at the left wing circle and slipped a pass across the crease to Fahlstadt, who tapped it in.
Kenai outshot Alaska 28-26 in the win.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.
Kenai River 3, Alaska 2 OT
Friday, MTA Events Center
First period — no scoring.
Second period — 1. Alaska- Smith-Mass Wright, Hesse) 18:52.
Third period — 2. Kenai- Hemsky (Blessing) 5:07; 3. Alaska- Fahlstedt (Novakovich, Bergh) 14:58; 4. Kenai River- Thompson (Muller) 17:48.
Overtime — 5. Muller (Lubanski, Ramsey) 2:25.
Shots on goal: Kenai River 11-7-8-2—28, Alaska 6-10-9-1—26; Saves: Kenai River- Severson 6-9-8-1—24, Alaska- 11-7-6-1—25; Power plays: Kenai River 0 for 5, Alaska 0 for 2.