PALMER — By the time the puck dropped to start the second period Saturday, the playoff fate of the Alaska Avalanche and Kenai River Brown Bears was already sealed.
Either they didn’t get the message or they didn’t care, because it didn’t appear to faze either team.
Especially the Brown Bears.
Kenai River capped a wild regular-season finale with three unanswered goals to grab a 5-4 shootout win over the Avalanche at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
“We knew that, at the start of the second period, we had clinched, and we played horrible, so we were down 4-2 quickly,” Kenai River coach Oliver David said. “We had a talk in the intermission, and then we played aggressive, and guys responded. Now, we haven’t lost in the last five games.
“It’s the most we could ask for, this momentum.”
Wenatchee’s 2-1 win over Fresno earlier in the evening finalized the playoff seeding for the North American Hockey League West Division. Wenatchee (36-17-7) clinched the No. 2 seed with 79 points in the standings. Fresno (27-23-10) was left with 64 points after the loss. Fresno and Kenai River entered Saturday action tied in the standings with 64 points, and the Brown Bears held all the tiebreakers.
That meant, regardless of what happened in Palmer, a Monsters loss punched Kenai River’s playoff ticket.
But that doesn’t mean David wanted to leave it all up to Fresno.
“We’re not coming in here to lose a game and look at the scoreboard and hope Wenatchee does our job for us,” David said after Friday’s game. “That’s not what we’re doing. We want to go into (the playoffs) with a bang, on a high note.”
If the Brown Bears go in with a bang, forward Sean Muller was the shooter.
A night after Muller scored the game-winner in a 3-2 overtime victory over the Avs on Tuesday, Muller posted the game-tying goal late in the third and the game-clinching score in the shootout.
“That’s great, last night he made an exceptionally skilled play, and I think it really proved to himself and the team that he is pretty clutch,” David said. “I believe he has four overtime goals this year, and I think he is also our leading goalscorer in the last two season stretch.”
With the Brown Bears on the 5 on 3 power play, Muller popped in a rebound of a Bobby Murphy shot to tie the score at 4 with 94 seconds left in regulation.
Muller’s goal was one of two in the period for Kenai. Alaska entered the third with a 3-2 lead and extended it with Evan Janssen’s power-play goal. But with five minutes left in regulation, Kenai River turned a Avs turnover into a quick 2-on-0 in the Alaska defensive zone.
Vincent Stefan picked up the loose puck near the blue line, and dropped a pass back to Chris Blessing, who buried the wrister.
With the score tied at 4, the teams skated through a scoreless overtime. Alaska had its chances in overtime, knocking a shot off the post. Mitch Kontny also nearly poked a puck by Kenai goalie Austin Severson in overtime.
Anthony Stempin gave Kenai River an early lead, but Evan Hesse scored twice for the Avs in the second period to give Alaska the advantage.
Hesse came up the right wing and snapped a shot by Severson five minutes into the second, and three minutes later, Hesse scored a goal gift-wrapped by Severson.
With the Avs on the power play, Severson skated deep into the left wing corner to play the puck. Alaska’s Codey Hansen rushed up the right side, got in Severson’s way, and forced the goalie to make an errant pass between the circles.
Hesse skated up alone, and buried a shot into the empty net.
After James Ramsey scored for Kenai River at the midway point, Alaska’s leading scorer, Gage Christianson, capped a 2-on-1 rush with a goal.
Brandon Brossoit sped past the Bears defense, slipped a pass to the left wing, and Christianson whipped a shot by Severson.
Alaska outshot Kenai River 43-34 in the loss.
“I also want to give credit to (assistant coach) Kyle Bailey,” David said Saturday. “He did a great job managing the defensive end, because we were switching a lot of things up out there.”
On Friday, Muller took control of the play early in overtime and helped the Brown Bears take control of their playoff destiny.
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-1’s 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 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. 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.
The Brown Bears will be hosting their annual awards banquet Sunday at the Soldotna Sports Center, at 5 p.m. Admission to the general public is $10, with dinner included.
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.
Kenai River 5, Alaska 4 SO
Saturday, MTA Events Center
First period — 1. Kenai River- Stempin (Granato, Nuth) 2:25.
Second period — 2. Alaska- Hesse (Wright, Kinkopf) 5:33; 3. Alaska- Hesse (Hansen) pp 8:11; 4. Kenai River- Ramsey (Lubanski, Blessing) 10:18; 5. Alaska- Christianson (Brossoit, Kessler) 16:56.
Third period — 6. Alaska- Janssen (Christianson, Schmitz) pp 1:05: 7. Kenai River- Blessing (Stefan, Hemsky) 15:03; 8. Kenai River- Muller (Murphy, Ramsey) pp 18:26.
Shootout — 9. Kenai River- Muller.
Shots on goal: Kenai River 7-9-15-2-1—34, Alaska 13-16-10-4-0—43; Saves: Kenai River- Severson 13-13-9-4-0—39, Alaska- Engum 6-8-13-2-0—29; Power plays: Kenai River 1 for 11, Alaska 2 for 9.