When Kenai River Brown Bears forward Matt Seidel plays 1-on-1 hockey, he is pretty good.
But when Seidel played 5-on-5 hockey Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center, he was great enough to deal a blow to the efforts of one of the North American Hockey League’s model franchises as it seeks home-ice advantage for the Robertson Cup playoffs.
Seidel scored four goals as the Bears defeated the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 5-4 in a shootout in front of 907 fans.
“The best thing he did tonight is support the puck and support his linemates,” Bears coach Oliver David said of Seidel. “He took his game to another level.
“He played a 5-on-5 game instead of a 1-on-1 game.”
The loss left Fairbanks clinging to first place in the West Division by the slimmest of margins. Both Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild have 80 points, but the Ice Dogs remain in first because they have one more regulation victory than the Wild.
Fairbanks closes the regular season with three games against the Bears, starting with a 7:30 p.m. game Saturday at the sports center. The Wild have three games left against the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters.
First place is not only important due to home ice. It’s also increasingly looking like a good idea to avoid the Bears in the first round of the playoffs.
Kenai River (27-24-6) has won four straight — the first three in that string being a home-ice sweep of the Wild. And it’s hard to call the Bears just a “hot” team at this point, because they are on a 13-5-2 run — a chunk of games that makes up a third of a season.
Friday, the Bears pulled within 7-6 in their season-long battle for the Era Alaska Cup with Fairbanks, a franchise that has been to the Robertson Cup three straight years, winning the cup in 2011.
The Ice Dogs put seven players on the ice with NCAA Division I commitments in search of a crucial late-season win, yet Fairbanks could not contain the Seidel-Dylan Meier-Chris Nuth line and was outshot 37-33.
“We got beat all over the ice,” said Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart, whose team had won nine straight before dropping its last two.
Seidel got the scoring started on Dogs goalie Steve Perry just two minutes into the game when Meier found him for a breakaway.
“I don’t have much experience with Perry, so I just did a simple move — forehand-backhand,” said Seidel, who had just one assist and no goals in 12 games against the Dogs before Friday.
Doug Rose and Ethan Somoza both scored unassisted goals before the end of the first for a 2-1 Fairbanks lead.
The Rose goal looked to be a simple slapper from the point, but Bears goalie Evan McCarthy said the shot actually deflected off a defenseman’s shin.
“On the second goal, I didn’t get my stick down and he went five-hole,” McCarthy said. “That was poor technique.”
McCarthy said he didn’t feel on all night. There was a time when the Bears needed a goalie to be on to beat the Dogs, but that time was not Friday.
“I think it’s just confidence,” McCarthy said. “That’s the word that keeps coming into my mind. We know we can play with anybody.
“We’ve been in close games with two teams that have 80 points lately, and we’ve been able to beat them.”
Seidel squared the game early in the second with the eye-popping individual talent he flashes from time to time, beating Perry with a lightning quick wraparound that used all of his 6-foot-2 frame.
“I don’t try that very often because it usually doesn’t work,” said Seidel, who jumped back into the team lead in goals (22) and points (40). “This is the second time this season it worked.”
With 6:10 in the second, Nuth dug the puck out of the corner and fed to Seidel in the slot for the hat trick and a 3-1 lead.
Even in a loud arena, it was possible to hear Stewart yelling at his squad after the goal.
“When a guy scores two goals, it generally leads a team to believe he is having a good game,” Stewart said. “They should expend extra energy to shut him down, but that wasn’t the case.”
It remained the case with 1:49 left in the second when Seidel and Meier broke out in a 2-on-1. Meier waited for a defenseman to slide by and gift-wrapped No. 4 for Seidel.
The tally also gave Nuth and Meier three assists in the game.
“Meier and Nuth did a great job of creating plays,” David said. “We’ve been trying to get them to play quicker, and tonight they were excellent.”
Down 4-2, Fairbanks began playing its best hockey of the night. Garret Clemment scored with 46 ticks left in the second, then Doug Rose had a power-play goal to tie the game midway through the third.
The Bears had just four penalties in the game, but two of them were back-to-back in the third period and led to the Rose goal.
“The game plan was no stick penalties,” David said. “We had a hiccup there.”
The overtime was all Bears, as they put up a 6-1 advantage on shots and had the majority of puck possession.
The Dogs had first place on the line in OT, while the Bears are in third no matter what. But Kenai River was willing to offer the energy it takes to outplay a squad like Fairbanks 4-on-4 on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice.
“I can’t say enough about the fans,” McCarthy said. “They really make a difference when it’s that loud on the ice.”
In the shootout, the Dogs’ Max Birkinbine, the first of four players with Division I commitments the Dogs would throw at McCarthy in the five-shot round, started by sniping a goal on the glove side.
Seidel and Jayson Angus then missed before Alec Butcher made it 1-all by going five-hole on Perry, who also has a Division I commitment.
After Clemment was denied by the pipe, Zac Lazzaro lassoed a backhand over Perry’s glove.
Rose faked out McCarthy for 2-2, but Alex Jackstadt found Perry’s five hole open again for a 3-2 advantage.
Devin Loe needed to score to keep Fairbanks alive, but McCarthy didn’t fall for his fake slap shot and kicked away the attempt.
“I just tried to stay patient, but it’s hard because they are all such good shooters,” McCarthy said after improving to 2-0 in shootouts against Fairbanks.
And with that, Fairbanks’ margin for error in chasing home ice was gone.
“I just expected us to be better,” Stewart said. “We need to be better tomorrow night.”
Brown Bears 5, Ice Dogs 4, SO
Fairbanks 2 1 1 0 0 —4
Kenai River 1 3 0 0 1 —5
First period — 1. Kenai River, Seidel (Meier, Nuth), 2:00; 2. Fairbanks, Rose (un.), 9:09; 3. Fairbanks, Somoza (un.), 14:18. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Seidel (Davidson, Meier), 3:35; 5. Kenai River, Seidel (Nuth), 13:50; 6. Kenai River, Seidel (Meier, Nuth), 18:11; 7. Fairbanks, Clemment (Hetz, Birkinbine), 19:14. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 8. Fairbanks, Rose (Birkinbine, Wolter), pp, 8:24. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — none.
Shootout — Fairbanks 2 (Birkinbine G, Angus NG, Clemment NG, Rose G, Loe NG); Kenai River 3 (Seidel NG, Butcher G, Lazzaro G, Jackstadt G).
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 11-10-11-1—33; Kenai River 11-13-7-6—37.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Perry (37 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, McCarthy (33 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 3; Kenai River 0 for 2.