The Fairbanks Ice Dogs had five players committed to a Division I school on the ice Friday and Saturday. 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 on Friday and 798 fans on Saturday.
The Bears did all three in sweeping the Ice Dogs at the Soldotna Sports Center, 3-1 on Friday and 3-2 in a dramatic Saturday shootout where the Bears were outshot 41-23.
Kenai River has won six straight games and has points in nine 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 five straight.
Kenai River also took a 5-3 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 on Friday, whose team is now 4-0 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.”
Kenai River improves to 21-19-6, while Fairbanks is 29-14-3. Wenatchee (Wash.) leads the West Division with 70 points, while Fairbanks has 61, Kenai River has 48 and Fresno (Calif.) has 30.
In Saturday’s game, Kenai River goalie Marcus Zelzer decided to leave the game with 17 minutes, 58 seconds, remaining after a Fairbanks player collided with him, injuring his knee. David said Zelzer made the choice as a precautionary measure and should be fine to play next weekend in Fairbanks.
When Zelzer left the game, it was Evan McCarthy taking over in the net for the Bears, who at the time had a 1-0 lead, courtesy of an Albin Karlsson score early in the second period.
“That’s very difficult to do,” David said of McCarthy’s task. “He hasn’t played for nine games before tonight, spanning a month, so it’s difficult to do, and that’s all you can ask for, to just fight for the end.
“He kept us in the game after getting caught, and he had an incredible save in overtime, so he did well for what he had to do.”
Brad LeLievre extended Kenai River’s lead a few minutes after McCarthy took over, but the Ice Dogs cut it back to one with a score from Jayson Angus with 8:51 left.
With the victory within sight, the Ice Dogs’ Brett Gervais managed to knock one more in with 51 seconds left to knot the game up, and so the game went to overtime.
“We were happy to get out of the game with a point and go into overtime, and I tried to loosen up the guys and told them to do what you think is right,” David said. “They just needed to go play, and we got six to eight forwards some ice time, which is a healthy amount in five minutes.”
In the overtime period, Kenai River came out firing, getting six shots on goal compared to Fairbanks’ two.
When the extra period wasn’t enough, the shootout began. The only goal scored in the shootout came at the stick of Alec Butcher, which ultimately was enough to secure Kenai River the win.
“There are big wins, but we don’t have the mindset of nothing matters because we’re in the playoffs. Everything matters,” David said. “We have to get better every week and build confidence. Everyone needs confidence at the end of March, so these wins are confidence boosters. These games show that we have confidence and heart.”
David told his team all week the Ice Dogs would come out flying Friday 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 Friday’s 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 Brown Bears play Friday and Saturday at Fairbanks, with the puck dropping at 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 1
Fairbanks 0 0 1 —1
Kenai River 1 1 1 —3
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.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 2, SO
Fairbanks 0 0 2 0 0 —2
Kenai River 0 1 1 0 1 —3
First period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Jackstadt), 5:22. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 2. Kenai River, LeLievre (Hodges), 10:34; 3. Fairbanks, Angus (Hinz, Loe), 11:09; 4. Fairbanks, Gervais (Campbell), 19:09. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — none.
Shootout — Fairbanks 0 (Angus NG, Birkinbine NG, Loe NG, Cornellier NG, Gervais NG); Kenai River 1 (Jackstadt NG, Butcher G, Seidel NG, Lazzaro NG).
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 16-10-13-2—41; Kenai River 5-6-6-6—24.