Saturday night nearly became known as the night the Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a playoff series.
However, central Peninsula residents are going to have to wait another 48 hours to see if they can do it.
Fairbanks beat Kenai River 6-5 in overtime to stave off elimination and tie the North American Hockey League West Division playoff series 2-2. That means it all comes down to Monday night’s winner-take-all Game 5, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks.
“It’s definitely a tough one to swallow, but these guys will be back on their feet and ready to go on Monday,” said assistant coach Nick Shackford. “There is about seven minutes that we were up, and that is a tough, tough amount of time to defend in that atmosphere.”
For most of the game, the Bears were down by three goals, but showed some determination in rallying back and taking a late lead. Brown Bears captain Zac Lazzaro and Soldotna’s Brad Duwe each had two goals in the comeback, and Duwe ended with four points total.
“A two-goal lead in my opinion is the worst lead in hockey. Once you get one, you get the momentum and you keep going back and forth,” Shackford said. “Everyone did great, it’s just a couple shots, a good hockey game and we just didn’t come through in the end.”
Early on, it looked increasingly like a Monday game would be played, as the Ice Dogs streaked out to a 3-0 lead.
Fairbanks’ first goal came courtesy of Zack Rall on a power play just past the two-minute mark.
When Jayson Angus knocked in the puck at point-blank range in a frantic skirmish in front of the net before the first 10 minutes were up, the crowd grew quieter.
The situation worsened at the 12-minute mark of the game as Max Birkinbine scored a third Ice Dogs goal on Marcus Zelzer. Zelzer saved a shot from behind, but it was Birkinbine who was first to find the loose puck and slapped it in.
At that point, Kenai River head coach Oliver David decided a change was needed, and pulled Zelzer in favor of Evan McCarthy.
“There’s no fault in goaltending at all, our goalies did great,” Shackford said. “From there, we got hot. It was a good hockey game for both clubs.”
Whatever David told his guys in the first intermission worked. Bears captain Zac Lazzaro found an opening in the net and put Kenai River on the board only 31 seconds into the second period, but it was only 2:15 later that Lawrence Cornellier put the Dogs back up by three. Both goals were power plays.
A bit of controversy hit at the 11:36 mark of the second period when Mikhail Bushinski’s slapshot hit Ice Dogs goalie Steve Perry in the pads and Bushinski caught the rebound and sent it home for what looked like a goal, but was overturned by the official because of a misconduct call after the goal.
The game was stopped at the 12:18 mark for nearly 10 minutes after Vincent Stefan suffered an apparent ankle injury. A Fairbanks player checked Stefan into the boards, which left Stefan down on the ice and clutching his ankle. It was not determined whether Stefan will play in Monday’s game.
The injury must have inspired Stefan’s teammates, as Brad Duwe scored only 1:17 later to bring the Bears closer, 4-2.
Heading into the third period, coach David knew that if the Bears wanted to end the series on Saturday night, the team needed to produce something special.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions for both teams,” said Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart. “We came out strong, then they rallied back. It might have been for lack of focus on our part, and we might’ve been a little tentative.”
With 17:38 remaining, Jacob Davidson’s slapshot from long range had Perry looking the wrong way, which allowed Bushinski to sneak a goal in on the power play. Kenai River ended up going 3 for 5 on the power play.
Soldotna’s Duwe tied the game up on a power play just over two minutes later to put the sports center into a frenzy. From there on out, it was game on.
With 7:48 left, the place erupted as Lazzaro netted his second goal of the night and gave the Bears the lead for the first time.
The Bears staved off a Fairbanks power play with five minutes to go, but with victory seemingly within reach, Taylor Munson barely slipped the puck past McCarthy with 1:16 left to tie it up and ultimately send the game into overtime.
“It was a good line-rush with four players, and with a lot of speed, it was a good play by them,” Shackford said. “The overtime goal was just hard to explain. In a shot from the corner and an unfortunate bounce. It happens. You can’t take everything for granted, and things happen like that in playoffs.”
Fairbanks’ overtime goal came 4:09 into the extra period, when Garret Clemment converted a ricochet of the puck into a goal.
“We’re pretty resilient,” Stewart said. “We’ve got a good mix of veteran leadership and the young guys who are experiencing this for the first time. Taylor Munson has been there before, and he made a big play to save our season.”
In a Monday night game that will surely bring out the fire in both teams, it can be certain that no squad will give an inch.
“It’s unfortunate, and I don’t think the game really policed itself the way it should’ve, but we’ll be ready for Monday’s game for sure,” Shackford said.
“These guys are upset, and they’ll be looking for revenge here.”
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 5, OT
Fairbanks 3 1 1 1 —6
Kenai River 0 2 3 0 —5
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Rall (Munson, Hinz), pp, 2:04; 2. Fairbanks, Angus (Madry, Loe), 9:27; 3. Fairbanks, Birkinbine (Rall, Clemment), 12:02. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Davidson, Duwe), pp, 0:31; 5. Fairbanks, Cornellier (Angus, Birkinbine), pp, 2:46; 6. Kenai River, Duwe (un.), 13:35. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
Third period — 7. Kenai River, Bushinski (Davidson, Bushey), pp, 2:22; 8. Kenai River, Duwe (Bushinski), pp, 4:33; 9. Kenai River, Lazzaro (Duwe, Walker), 12:12; 10. Fairbanks, Munson (Clemment, Angus), 18:44. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 11. Fairbanks, Clemment (Rose, Cornelier), 4:09. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 14-6-8-3—31; Kenai River 16-10-9-1—36.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Perry (36 shots, 31 saves); Kenai River, Zelzer, McCarthy (31 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 2 for 7; Kenai River 3 for 5.