A win over the nemesis Fairbanks Ice Dogs will always be big for the Kenai River Brown Bears organization and its team, but Friday's 4-3 triumph at the Soldotna Sports Center took on greater import due to the way it happened.
• For starters, it happened in front of 1,575 loud, bell-clanging fans. When Trevor Stewart, coach of the Ice Dogs and owner of one of the best home crowds in the North American Hockey League, says it's a good crowd, it's a good crowd.
• The Bears changed up their lines and it worked. Kenai River broke a string of eight straight games without scoring more than three goals.
• Kenai River, one of the youngest teams in the league, started to show more signs of maturity. The Bears jumped to a 3-0 lead before allowing Fairbanks to come back to tie it. Instead of panicking, Kenai River outshot Fairbanks 10-7 in the final period and got the game-winner from Vincent Stefan with 5 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game.
"It was an awesome win," said Kenai River captain Zac Lazzaro, who led the way with two goals. "Like I said, we stayed the course all night, especially when they came back and things were not going our way."
The Bears improved to 11-10-4 in the West Division, good for 26 points and third place. Fairbanks leads the division at 18-7-0, while the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild are second at 16-3-2. Kenai River also went up 2-1 in the Era Alaska Cup, which will be given to the winner of the Bears-Dogs season series.
Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe made his first appearance with the Brown Bears after taking last season off, and it didn't take long for him to have an impact. Just 49 seconds into the game — on his first shift — Duwe picked up a turnover and fed Lazzaro for a goal.
"That was pretty huge because goals have not come easily for us lately," Lazzaro said.
In the second period, the Brown Bears ran the lead out to 3-0 when Carson Vance, on assists from Chris Nuth and Stefan, clanged in a goal off the pipe, and Lazzaro scored a power-play goal with helpers from Lucas Kohls and Ryan Walker.
After laying an egg in a 7-3 loss to Corpus Christi (Texas) on Nov. 23, Brown Bears coach Oliver David had a meeting with his team the next day about its effort level. The coach was happy with the effort in a 3-2 overtime loss to the IceRays that day, and that continued Friday.
"The one thing about tonight was our compete level was high," David said. "Our intensity was high all night."
Stewart was not happy with his team's compete level and called timeout after Lazzaro's goal with 11:05 in the second period.
"We just weren't very good tonight," Stewart said. "At times we were good, but it wasn't enough."
It almost was.
Chandler Madry and Garret Clemment, who recently got a Division I commitment at Lake Superior State University, closed the second period with goals.
With 10:22 left in the game, Colton Wolter tied it at three.
"They are a great, great, great team," Stefan said. "They are going to score goals. We knew that when they scored goals, we had to keep going."
Despite some tough breaks, the Bears did just that. Kenai River was denied by the pipe in the first and third periods, and in the second period Ice Dogs goalie Kevin Aldridge had part of his glove slide just past the goal line while it was covering the puck. Officials couldn't determine where the puck was under the glove, so no goal was awarded.
"We can't control whether we're getting goals, we can only control whether or not we are creating scoring chances," David said. "We created more scoring chances tonight than we did in the first two games against them."
The biggest scoring chance came with 5:24 left in the game, when Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz squeezed up the right board and found Stefan wide open in front of the net on the weak side.
Stefan had left the ice in the first period with an ankle injury. He received medical treatment and notched an assist on his first shift back in the second period. He also was there to stuff in the game-winner in the third.
"It was an unbelievable pass," Stefan said of Zulkanycz's threading of the needle. "I still haven't figured out how he got it to me."
Fairbanks pulled its goalie with 51 seconds left and earned one great chance in the final 10 seconds when Wolter got a pass alone in front, but the dirty ice kicked the puck over his stick and the big crowd exhaled and went home happy.
Bears goalie Gusaf Johansson picked up the win with his 32 saves. Aldridge made 26.
The same two teams drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Notes: The new lines were Alec Butcher-Alex Jackstadt-Albin Karlsson, Lazzaro-Kohls-Duwe, Dylan Meier-Nuth-Matt Seidel, and Conor Deal-Zulkanycz-Bryan Hodges. David did not tell the team of the new arrangement until game day. "It was a smart move, it obviously worked out," Lazzaro said. … Even though it is December, this was the first time Fairbanks played on the big sports center sheet this season. Both David and Stewart said that may have played a role in Kenai River's fast start.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Zac Lazzaro (Duwe), 0:49. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Vance (Nuth, Stefan), 1:59; 3. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Kohls, Walker), pp, 8:55; 4. Fairbanks, Madry (Rall, Wendling), 16:43; 5. Fairbanks, Clemment (Rose, Madry), pp, 18:13. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 6. Fairbanks, Wolter (Hinz), 9:38; 7. Kenai River, Stefan (Zulkanycz, Deal), 14:36. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 14:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 15-13-7—35; Kenai River 9-11-10—30.
Goalies — Kenai River, Gusaf Johansson (35 shots, 32 saves); Fairbanks, Aldridge (30 shots, 26 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 4; Kenai River 1 for 3.