The Kenai River Brown Bears have kept the Fairbanks Ice Dogs from winning first place in the North American Hockey League West Division.
Next step: Keep the Ice Dogs from winning the Era Alaska Cup.
The Brown Bears got two goals and an assist from Ryan Walker and defeated the Ice Dogs 4-3 on Friday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena for their sixth straight victory.
Combined with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild's overtime victory over the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters, the Fairbanks loss means the Wild clinch first in the division.
Wenatchee has 84 points with one game to play, while Fairbanks (38-17-4) has 80 points. The Ice Dogs will play the Brown Bears (29-24-6) in the first round of the playoffs, while the Wild face off against the Monsters.
The Bears also took an 8-7 lead in the Era Alaska Cup, the season-long battle for state supremacy between the two teams. But coach Oliver David said the Bears have to win the last game of the season Saturday to take the cup, because two of Kenai River's victories over Fairbanks have been shootout victories.
Kenai River's six straight victories have all come against the Wild or Ice Dogs, two teams furiously chasing home-ice advantage to the Robertson Cup. Friday was the first of those six to come on the road, disappointing 2,242 fans in Fairbanks.
"Honestly, it seems like each win down the stretch has had some meaning, some weight to it," said David, whose team has also won eight of nine. "They all seem to have some essence of being a milestone-type game."
The Brown Bears won for the second time this year in Fairbanks. Last year, they won just once there.
"It's been our best overall season against our in-state rival no matter what happens tomorrow night," David said.
Devin Loe got Fairbanks on the board first with 10 minutes, 25 seconds, to play in the first period. Walker equalized for the Bears with 4:22 left in the period on assists from Zack Zulkanycz and Mikhail Bushinski.
David said Walker, a defenseman, joined the rush on the play — a tactic on which the Bears have been working in practice.
"We worked on it in practice and got the ultimate visual payoff on the scoreboard," David said. "When they see that, it helps them buy in."
The Bears have also been working on getting the puck to the point quickly and getting off a shot. Dylan Meier and Matt Seidel got the puck to Walker at the point, and he quickly fired past Fairbanks goalie Steve Perry for a 2-1 lead with 17:44 left in the second.
Midway through the period, Garret Clemment equalized for the Ice Dogs.
Alex Jackstadt, the second-leading scorer for the Bears, helped the team to victory in the third period by, of all things, being unselfish enough to get off the ice.
Midway though the third period, Jackstadt, Alec Butcher, Albin Karlsson, Vince Stefan and Walker were able to put together a minute of pressure in the Fairbanks zone.
Jackstadt jumped off the ice in favor of Seidel, and he used those fresh legs to score on assists from Walker and Butcher.
"That's one of the things we stress — not turning the puck over in the offensive zone," David said.
With 2:53 to play in the game, Jackstadt again jumped off the ice early, this time in favor of Zac Lazzaro. David said Karlsson got the puck out of the defensive zone with great individual effort and broke out into a 2-on-1, hitting Lazzaro with a perfect pass for a 4-2 lead.
Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart wasted little time going to the extra attacker, and with two minutes left Fairbanks cut the gap to 4-3 on a goal by Ethan Somoza.
David said Zulkanycz, Bushinski, Lazzaro, Stefan and Walker got stuck on the ice for over a minute facing the extra attacker, and, with Evan McCarthy making the last of his 26 saves, were able to gut out a win.
"Those were anxious moments," David said. "We really wanted the win. The guys battled, blocked shots and cleared pucks.
The same two teams drop the puck Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Fairbanks.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 3
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Loe (Cornellier), 9:35; 2. Kenai River, Walker (Zulkanycz, Bushinski), 15:30. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Walker (Meier, Seidel), 2:16; 4. Fairbanks, Clemment (Rose), 10:44. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 9:00; Fairbanks 3 for 11:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Seidel (Walker, Butcher), 8:54; 6. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Karlsson), 17:07; 7. Fairbanks, Somoza (Clemment), ea, 18:00. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 19-14-5—38; Fairbanks 11-9-9—29.
Goalies — Kenai River, McCarthy (29 shots, 26 saves); Fairbanks, Perry (38 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 5; Fairbanks 0 for 4.