The gap is closing, but it’s not all the way closed.
The Kenai River Brown Bears lost the opener in a best-of-five North American Hockey League playoff series 3-1 to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Friday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks.
The Bears fell to 0-13 in the playoffs, but Friday was by far their best effort in a playoff opener. The Bears, who outshot Fairbanks 25-21 and lost by two goals due to a late empty-netter, had lost their four previous playoff openers by an aggregate score of 17-4.
“I think the guys are a little pissed off,” Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. “The guys know they can win. They’re right there.
“We’re going to have to win in this building. It’d be nice to get that done sooner rather than later.”
David said the Bears were the better team out of the gate, but he said Fairbanks began to spend a lot of time in Kenai River’s zone starting at the midway point of the first period.
The first closed with no goals on the board and a fight between Kenai River’s Chris Nuth and Fairbanks’ Lonnie Clary. Nuth mostly held a frisky Clary at bay until the refs came and break it up, at which point Clary threw a late punch to earn a 10-minute misconduct in addition to the fighting major.
While the shots were 8-8 at the end of the first, Fairbanks outshot Kenai River 11-6 in the second and put two goals on the board.
David said both teams deserved what they got in the second period. While Fairbanks turned up the heat, Kenai River struggled with basic puck-handling, blew a power-play coverage and missed two great scoring chances.
“We were struggling with routine stuff, just kind of clanking around,” David said. “Pucks were jumping off our stick, even in the open ice. We weren’t creating and they played better than we did.
“The only thing I can think of is nerves and inexperience.”
Lawrence Cornellier struck with 14:03 left in the second when he gained control of a faceoff and beat Marcus Zelzer.
Just 22 seconds into the power play, Kyle Lee made it 2-0 at the 7:37 mark when he got the puck all alone down low and scored.
“On their power play, we lost coverage, which we hadn’t done for months,” David said. “They were running the exact same power play they had been running, it was not a new look we hadn’t seen.”
The Bears had three great chances to score in the second, according to David. Alex Jackstadt found Alec Butcher for a great look at the net, but Butcher tapped it just wide.
With 2:20 left in the second, leading scorer Matt Seidel had a breakaway but was denied by Steve Perry. Then on a power play to close the period, Ryan Walker was denied by the inside of the pipe.
In the third period, David said the Ice Dogs didn’t try to attack much, and tried to protect the lead. That led to the Brown Bears running up an 11-3 advantage on shots.
“We were able to get after it and create two or three pretty good scoring chances,” David said.
After being shut out in both playoff games in Fairbanks last year, Brad LeLievre finally broke the ice for the Brown Bears with 10:22 left in the game. LeLievre crossed the blue line and whizzed a wrister high and to Perry’s stick side. The goalie was beat when he crossed his face with his glove trying to snare the laser.
The Bears went on the power play with 4:35 left in the game, but David said his squad didn’t get much done.
With 29 seconds left, Jakob Romo iced the game with an empty-net goal. The Bears had just pulled Marcus Zelzer.
“We had a bad line change to end the game there and a little bit of a miscommunication,” David said.
Zelzer made 19 saves, while Perry had 24.
“Zelzer played good enough to win,” David said. “We just didn’t capitalize.”
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
Fairbanks 0 2 1 —3
First period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 5:00; Fairbanks 2 for 15:00.
Second period — 1. Fairbanks, Cornellier (Loe), 5:57; 2. Fairbanks, Lee (Clemment, Munson), 12:23. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, LeLievre (Deal), 9:38; 4. Fairbanks, Romo (Hinz), en, 19:31. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 8-6-11—25; Fairbanks 8-11-3—22.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Perry (25 shots, 24 saves); Kenai River, Zelzer (21 shots, 19 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 2; Fairbanks 1 for 1.