The Fairbanks Ice Dogs had five players committed to a Division I school on the ice Friday. The Kenai Brown Bears had one.
So it was safe to say the Brown Bears were not going to swamp Fairbanks with waves of attacking hockey in the North American Hockey League contest.
But what the Brown Bears could do is keep the puck out of the middle of their defensive zone, take advantage of opportunities when they arose, and skate hard to cover up the angles as the Ice Dogs zinged the puck around the Olympic-sized rink in front of 795 fans.
The Bears did all three in a 3-1 victory at the Soldotna Sports Center that gave the squad wins in five straight games and points in eight straight games. The Dogs, who have a 2011 Robertson Cup title to show for an appearance in the big show the last three years, now have lost four straight.
Kenai River also took a 4-3 advantage in the Era Alaska Cup, the season-long battle between the two Alaska junior teams.
"We don't have a choice of letting up or keeping going," said Kenai River coach Oliver David, whose team is now 3-0 against Fairbanks in Soldotna. "It's full throttle, to say the least.
"We do have skill and talent but the teams we're facing do as well, and then some, in some cases."
David told his team all week the Ice Dogs would come out flying due to the losing streak, and the Fairbanks squad didn't disappoint.
"Losing four straight is unacceptable for them, as it is for us," Kenai River captain Zac Lazzaro said. "We knew we had to be ready for them to come out strong."
The key play in the first period was made by Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz. With 12 minutes left, Zulkanycz dislodged the puck from a Fairbanks defender in the corner, and slid the puck into the slot to Lazzaro for a goal.
"He caught me off guard," Lazzaro said. "I didn't think he would get the puck because their defensemen are so good one-on-one.
"It was an unbelievable forecheck. I was getting ready to forecheck in the other corner and all of a sudden the puck was on my stick."
The Ice Dogs came out slow in the second period, and again Kenai River took advantage.
With 14:37 left, Chris Nuth took the puck at the blue line, looked off the Fairbanks defense with a fake pass, then used that space to get into the slot and flip a wrister past the stick side of Kevin Aldridge.
In Nuth's head, the goal wasn't nearly as pretty.
"Somebody, I think Dylan Meier, passed me the puck in the neutral zone," Nuth said. "I was going to try to pass to (Matt) Seidel, but I couldn't, so I threw it on net, and somehow it went in the back of the net."
Fairbanks got its attack going in the end of the second period, and then the third period showcased the Ice Dogs in all their attacking fury. Fairbanks outshot Kenai River 14-7 in the final period en route to a 32-24 advantage for the game.
"The first two periods, they outworked us," Fairbanks coach Trevor Stewart said. "In the third period, we got more physical and started finishing our checks."
But for the most part, the Bears defense wouldn't crack.
"They did a good job keeping the puck out of the middle of the ice, and that's the most important part of the defensive zone," Stewart said.
David was particularly pleased with defenseman Carson Vance, who was named player of the game by the coach, and goalie Marcus Zelzer.
"He's like a puppy," David said of Vance, who with a Jan. 10, 1996, birthdate is the youngest player on the team. "He's growing up before our eyes.
"The things we've been working on getting him to do — he did all of those things tonight."
Zelzer continued the lights-out goaltending he has displayed for the team since being acquired in a trade. He is now 6-1-2 for the Bears with a 1.85 goals against average and .931 save percentage.
"Zelzer did his fair share of work," David said. "He kept us in the game. He's a big reason we earned two points."
The Bears finally gave up the middle of the ice with 3:58 left in the game, and Garret Clemment took advantage, slashing across the crease and beating Zelzer.
But Kenai River didn't give up any Grade A chances the rest of the way. Fairbanks pulled the goalie with 1:08 left, and Albin Karlsson, the lone player on the Bears with a Division I commitment, took advantage with a deft pass to a wide-open Lazzaro, who skated the puck into the empty net.
"It was a great pass, especially with coach screaming at him to get the puck out of the zone," Lazzaro said.
The Bears improved to 20-19-6, while Fairbanks is at 29-14-2. Wenatchee (Wash.) leads the West Division with 68 points, while Fairbanks has 60, Kenai River has 46 and Fresno (Calif.) has 30.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Zulkanycz), 8:00. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Nuth (Davidson, Meier), 5:23. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Clemment (Cornellier, Campbell), 16:02; 4. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Karlsson, Walker), en, 19:29. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 8-10-14—32; Kenai River 8-9-7—24.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (23 shots, 21 saves); Kenai River, Zelzer (32 shots, 31 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 3.