The Kenai River Brown Bears lost their last-chance game in the North American Hockey League playoffs against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 3-2 Friday night in front of 1,098 fans at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Fairbanks will continue on to the second round of the playoffs to play the winner of the Wenatchee Wild and Alaska Avalanche series, which is currently tied 2-2.
Coming into the night, the Ice Dogs led the best-of-five game series 2-0, and if Kenai River could win, the Bears would push their chances of making a comeback at least one more day.
However, Fairbanks started hot, as they outshot Kenai River 17-4 in the first period, which resulted in a 2-0 score. Gabe Levin and Rudy Sulmonte put the puck in the net for those first two scores.
“I thought we did not have our best game from the start, but we started improving as the game went along,” Bears head coach Oliver David said. “One shot, that put us in the running to win the game, and then they went up 3-1, so that was not the plan.”
With 3:47 left in the second period, Kenai River managed to score its first goal of the series, with a shot from Matt Thompson, assisted by Jesse Ramsey and Brett Lubanski. The score brought the Brown Bears to within a shot of tying the game.
Fairbanks did not give in, and the Ice Dogs made the score 3-1 on a goal by Pavlo Padakin at 7:32 in the third period.
“I said this is our game, we have 20 minutes to win a hockey game and a series, and they responded,” Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart said. “They threw some stuff at us in the third period, and had us on the ropes a little, but we regrouped in the second intermission and were able to find a way out.”
With the score 3-1 in the closing minutes of the game, Kenai River had nothing to lose, and so goalie Austin Severson was pulled in favor of an extra attacker.
With that situation, Sean Muller managed to sneak the puck past Ice Dogs goalie Steve Perry with just seven seconds left in the game, although it was all for naught.
“(Coach David) said stick with our systems, don’t stray from that, just work hard, and bend away at it,” Muller said. “Overall we played well, they had really good goaltending, and every guy has a certain role that they do every time, so it’s hard to beat.
“It’s definitely emotional, I didn’t want it to end like this.”
With the loss that ends Kenai River’s season, David said there is nothing he can take away from the game, as the effort level displayed by the Bears was at the maximum.
“We matched up well, we matched lines, we had the scenarios we wanted, and we just kept trying to grind away,” David said. “A few bounces here and there went their way, and they are the best team to capitalize on mistakes, and they did that three times. They are very well organized, and they are the best team in the league, so we drew the short stick and had to play the champion.
“I’m pretty proud actually, it was a great effort, it’s an improvement over last year. We still haven’t won a playoff game, but it was 3-2, and last year’s final game was 7-2, and we didn’t have a chance at all.”
The Brown Bears forced Ice Dogs goalie Perry to work, as he took on 31 shots, including 18 in the third period. Perry recorded 29 saves for Fairbanks, and Kenai River's Severson stopped 24 shots out of the 27 that he faced.
"They play a very sound defensive game, they don’t rush around, they’re super confident, and they don’t turn the puck over,” David said. “They manage a few areas of the ice consistently better than most teams in our league, and we are working on those things.”
David mentioned that with the Alaska Avalanche possibly shutting down after this season, the number of games that the Bears would play the Ice Dogs would increase. In the regular season this year, Kenai River faced Fairbanks 12 times. That number could increase to 16.
“We might be playing Fairbanks 16 times next year, so I don’t know if an offseason closes that gap, and makes us even, and it would be nice, but that’s our reality,” he said.
Even with a loss, David said the experience of playing a team as tough as Fairbanks can only help.
“They are the team of the year, in my opinion,” he said. “They are the Yankees, that’s the big time.”