Down 1-0 in the final 10 minutes on Friday to the most successful North American Hockey League team in the playoffs the past three years, a Brown Bears victory was going to take something special — with maybe a fortunate bounce tossed in.
Goalie Marcus Zelzer and forward Brad Duwe provided the special, while Vince Stefan took advantage of a nice bounce, as the Bears topped the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 2-1 in front of 1,182 fans at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The victory gave the Bears a 2-1 edge in the best-of-five series heading into Saturday’s Game 4.
After getting its first playoff victory in 14 tries in Game 2, Kenai River picked up its first home playoff victory in four attempts. Fairbanks, the only team to reach the Robertson Cup the last three seasons, falls to 3-1 in the playoffs at the sports center. The Ice Dogs have not lost two games in a West Division playoff series since 2010.
The Bears improved to 7-2 against Fairbanks at the sports center this year.
“I’m new at this,” Kenai River coach Oliver David said after improving to 2-10 in the playoffs. “We haven’t been in this spot.
“Instinct says there’s not much we’re going to have to do to motivate these guys for tomorrow.”
Fairbanks rode into the final 10 minutes of the game looking to make a second-period strike by Jayson Angus stand up.
The first special play belonged to Zelzer and occurred at the 9:17 mark. As video of the save circulates, it will quickly become legend, especially if the Bears can finish off the Dogs.
David said it’d be silly to say it’s the best save he’s ever seen, but he was still shaking his head in wonder after the game.
“It was the most incredible thing I’ve seen lately, anyway,” he said.
The play started when Zelzer moved to the right of the crease to poke away a Fairbanks rush. However, he poked the puck right out in front of the goal, where Fairbanks forward Lawrence Cornellier was charging.
Due to defensive pressure, all Cornellier could do was jab the puck toward the center of the top pipe, but as he made contact Zelzer was on one knee and completely out of the crease except the edge of his skate.
He snapped to his feet and used all of his 6-foot-3 frame to snatch the puck just before it went under the bar.
“It all kind of happened in a blur,” Zelzer said.
He wasn’t the only one to not quite register what had happened. The officials had a lengthy chat with the goal judge about whether the puck had crossed the line.
Video replay does not give the conclusive angle, but every indication is the right call was made.
“I knew it wasn’t a goal,” Zelzer said. “I was just looking at the goal judge hoping the guy was on my side.”
The Bears took advantage of the second life afforded them by Zelzer with 6:44 left in the game.
Alec Butcher was trying to feed Alex Jackstadt when the puck bounced to a wide-open Stefan at the top of the faceoff circle.
“I was actually really surprised it popped out right to me,” Stefan said.
David had chewed Stefan out during the second intermission for three power-play shots that he had drilled right into goalie Steve Perry’s chest.
That was on Stefan’s mind as the puck came his way.
“I almost rushed it, but I took some time and put it in the right spot,” Stefan said.
He went low on Perry’s glove side, and with the traffic in front of the net, Perry didn’t stand a chance.
Still to come is what David called the play of the game. Zelzer was named the player of the game by the coach, but Duwe earned the honor for best play with 1:46 left in the game.
Duwe was born in Soldotna on May 2, 1992, so he knows the history of junior hockey in the area.
While the Ice Dogs have sailed along as a stable franchise in Fairbanks, Duwe has seen two junior outfits fail on the Peninsula. He also played on two of the four Brown Bears teams that suffered three-game sweeps in the playoffs.
Carrying that history, he barreled from the blue line into the teeth of the Fairbanks defense, keeping two defenders at bay with his 6-foot-2 frame as he charged toward the goal line.
“I was cut off on my backhand so I put it back out front,” Duwe said. “My teammates were supporting the play, just like they were supposed to.”
With Perry off to the side of the net after attending to Duwe, Zac Lazzaro got the puck to an open Jake Davidson, who buried the game-winner.
“That’s exactly what a power forward is supposed to look like,” David said of Duwe’s play.
While the crowd, a record attendance for the Bears for a playoff game, was antsy entering the final 10 minutes, Duwe said that feeling did not extend to his team.
“We didn’t even think about it,” Duwe said. “We just kept doing what we’ve been taught, what we’ve learned.”
The Ice Dogs pulled Perry for the final 1:24. There was an anxious moment for the Bears when the puck was loose in the crease for a split second, but there was no Fairbanks player to tap it home.
“I thought we played hard,” Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart said. “There were just some bounces and calls that did not go our way.”
The Bears outshot the Dogs 35-24, mostly due to a 13-3 advantage in the second period where the Dogs killed off three penalties, while the Bears did not have to kill off any. Kenai River was 0 for 6 with the extra man, while Fairbanks was 0 for 2.
Fairbanks did not look like a defeated team as the Dogs worked out hard in the hallways of the sports center after the game.
“You can see how hard these guys are working,” Stewart said. “They’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
The Bears also are ready for the next chapter in the saga that has seen Kenai River go 10-9 against Fairbanks thus far this season.
“We’ll have the same game plan,” Stefan said. “We’ve had the same game plan for a while now.
“We just have to get after it.”
Added Duwe: “We want it even more now. We’re going to keep pushing.”
Brown Bears 2, Ice Dogs 1
Fairbanks 0 1 0 —1
Kenai River 0 0 2 —2
First period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 1. Fairbanks, Angus (Lee), 1:37. Penalties — Fairbanks 5 for 10:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 2. Kenai River, Stefan (Butcher, Jackstadt), 13:16; 3. Kenai River, Davidson (Lazzaro, Duwe), 18:14. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 9-3-12—24; Kenai River 10-13-12—35.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Perry (35 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Zelzer (24 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 6.