The Fairbanks Ice Dogs defeated the Kenai River Brown Bears 3-2 on Saturday night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks to claim the Era Alaska Cup in the first year of its existence.
The Ice Dogs and Brown Bears finished the season series tied at 8-8, but Fairbanks won the crown due to their point total against Kenai River. Two of Kenai Rivers wins came in overtime games, which still awards a point to the loser, and those two extra points made the difference.
The Bears end their season with a 29-25-6 record and third place in the North American Hockey League West division standings, and now look ahead to a first-round playoff matchup with Fairbanks, the second seed from the NAHL West division. The first playoff game will be April 12 in Fairbanks. The Bears have never won a postseason game, which is likely a box they would like to check off their to-do list this year.
“It was a good weekend,” Kenai River coach Oliver David said. “We got a split. We got a win, which is 100 percent better than we’ve been doing in this building. We had two wins here this weekend, and just one each of the last two years.”
In Saturday’s game, Kenai River arrived with all cylinders firing, as they managed to outshoot the Ice Dogs 17-8 in the first period and 13-9 in the second. However, the squad only got one goal out of that — a shot from Chris Nuth, his 10th of the season, late in the first period that tied the game up at 1-1.
Earlier in the first period, Fairbanks failed to convert on a penalty shot from Garrett Clemment on Bears goalie Marcus Zelzer. Zelzer was playing in his first game back since Feb. 9, when he was injured on a play.
“Zelzer looked good,” David said. “He was tracking the puck well.”
In the third period, Fairbanks got a goal from Devin Loe, followed by a Kenai River goal from Alec Butcher to tie it, and a third goal from Fairbanks — all in a span of 2 minutes, 49 seconds. Fairbanks’ game winner came from Taylor Munson with 10:12 left.
Overall, Kenai River outshot Fairbanks 35-25 on Saturday.
The Bears were hit with injuries during the game. Alex Jackstadt went knee-first into the boards in the third period. Brad LeLievre took a shot off of his foot, while Bryan Hodges broke his collarbone. Hodges, normally a forward, was playing defense because Jacob Davidson was having a leg issue and Ryan Walker had a possible concussion.
“The guys played hard,” David said. “We were down to nine forwards at one point.”
On Friday, the Brown Bears got two goals and an assist from Ryan Walker and defeated the Ice Dogs 4-3 in front of 2,242 fans.
Combined with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild’s overtime victory over the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters on Friday, the Fairbanks loss on Friday meant the Wild clinched first in the division. That means the Wild play the Monsters in the first round of the playoffs, while the Dogs and Bears face off.
“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.”
On Friday, the Brown Bears won for the second time this year in Fairbanks. Last year, they won just once there.
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 notes: The day after forward Brad Duwe signed to play with the Seawolves, former Brown Bears player Bobby Murphy was named the Most Improved player at the hockey awards banquet. Murphy, a forward from Anchorage, produced just one assist and dressed in 10 games in the first half of the season. In the second half, he suited up in 17 of 18 games and notched two goals and an assist. ... A few former Brown Bears played in the NCAA Division I tournament. Doug Beck and Patrick Sullivan helped lift Canisius College into the tournament by helping lead the Griffs to victory in the Atlantic Hockey tournament. Canisius was eliminated after a 4-3 loss to Quinnipiac on Saturday. Sullivan had 22 points for the Griffs this year, while Beck had 13. ... Former Brown Bears player Nick Gawron plays for Niagara University. Niagara lost to North Dakota 2-1 in the tourney on Friday.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2
Kenai River 1 0 1 —2
Fairbanks 1 0 2 —3
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Wolter (Romo), 10:54; 2. Kenai River, Nuth (Deal), 18:46. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 6:00
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Loe (Lagrone, Cornellier), 6:59; 4. Kenai River, Butcher (Karlsson, Stefan), 7:21; 5. Fairbanks, Munson (Cornellier, Loe), 9:48. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goals — Kenai River 17-13-5—35; Fairbanks 8-9-8—25.
Goalies — Kenai River, Zelzer (25 shots, 22 saves); Fairbanks, Aldridge (35 shots, 33 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 2; Fairbanks 0 for 4.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 3
Kenai River 1 1 2 —4
Fairbanks 1 1 1 —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.