Game 5 awaits Bears in Fairbanks

Kenai River must win at Dipper to extend season

History says one thing will happen when the Kenai River Brown Bears travel to Fairbanks to face the Ice Dogs tonight at 7 p.m. in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the North American Hockey League West Division playoffs.


Current events say the expected capacity crowd at the Big Dipper Ice Arena should expect something else entirely.

History says the Dogs will finally cast off the pesky Bears and advance to the second round for the sixth-straight season, and keep Kenai River from picking up its first playoff series victory in its sixth year of existence.

The history of the Ice Dogs is intimately wound with general manager Rob Proffitt, who is fond of saying the key to success is getting on the inner circle and working hard to stay there.

What does the inner circle look like?

Fairbanks is the only team to reach the Roberston Cup the last three seasons — getting to the semifinals in 2012, winning in 2011 and losing in the final in 2010.

The Ice Dogs have 10 players listed with Division I commitments on the NAHL site, second in the league to the 11 of the Amarillo (Texas) Bulls.

Putting that talent on the ice allows the Ice Dogs to pack the Dipper on a nightly basis, averaging 2,209 fans per game in the regular season this year even though hockey fans also have the option of going to Division I University of Alaska Fairbanks games.

What is not part of the plan of staying on the inner circle?

Losing a first-round playoff series to the Brown Bears, a squad with two committed to Division I programs thus far this season.

The Ice Dogs website says that Proffitt has been the heart and soul of the Ice Dogs program since its inception in 1997. That program has continuously brushed aside junior efforts on the Peninsula, whether they be named the Hellfighters, Chinooks or Brown Bears.

The Bears have a 25-52-4 record in the regular season against the Ice Dogs. Before this current series, the Bears has suffered three three-game playoff sweeps to Fairbanks, getting outscored 41-10.

Which brings us to current events — this season in general and this playoff series specifically. Current events say expect a dogfight tonight.

The Kenai River franchise has done a lot of growing up since Oliver David became the organization’s fourth coach 12 games into its third season in 2009.

“This has been a great season, for all intents and purposes,” David said. “It’s been the third record-breaking season in a row for us.”

After setting franchise records for wins with 27 in 2010-11 and 31 in 2011-12, little brother Kenai River finally figured it was grown up enough to challenge big brother Fairbanks this season.

The Brown Bears will never be the Ice Dogs. The population advantage in Fairbanks assures that, and the Army base and major university in Fairbanks give the Ice Dogs the perfect base to keep putting 2,242 in the Dipper, while the Bears failed to crack 1,200 at either playoff game this weekend.

But just as the Peninsula Oilers have used the unique location of the Peninsula to be one of the country’s top summer collegiate baseball programs, the Bears have used the intimate setting of the Kenai to draw players that have been playing some of the best Junior A Tier II hockey in the country the past few months.

Kenai River finished 8-8 against Fairbanks in the regular season, with the Dogs technically getting the better of the Bears because two Kenai River wins were in shootouts. Fairbanks outscored Kenai River 46-38 in regulation.

But come March, any difference between the two teams vanished.

In 10 games — six regular season and four playoff — the teams are 5-5 against each other. Take away the goal awarded to Kenai River in a shootout win, and the goals for and against in that time period is 29 on each side.

In seven of those 10 games, the decisive goal came in the third period, overtime or a shootout.

The difference between the two teams in the playoffs has been inches and split seconds. Kenai River rattled the pipe several times in losing Game 1, Fairbanks had a goal disallowed in losing Game 2, Bears goalie Marcus Zelzer snatched a puck from right under the crossbar to save Game 3, and a goal by the Bears’ Mikhail Bushinski was disallowed in Game 4 because the referee blew the whistle as goalie Steve Perry’s glove covered the puck — a split second before the puck came loose and Bushinski knocked it in the net.

“It was a gut-wrenching loss, to be honest,” David said of the 6-5 overtime loss Saturday. “I’ve got to tip the hat to our players. We had just about as brutal a start as we could have.

“The scoreboard was 3-0 after 20 minutes. Faced with that, we were able to claw our way all the way back.”

So despite being 1 minute, 16 seconds, from series victory Saturday, when Fairbanks’ Taylor Munson scored to send the game into overtime, Kenai River remains confident.

The Bears have won two of their last four at the Dipper.

“We have been competing fairly tough in that building,” David said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal the game is in Fairbanks.

“I think the kids are comfortable there. It’s a matter of playing 60 minutes.”

Zelzer was pulled after allowing three first-period goals, but David said Zelzer was not pulled due to performance. Evan McCarthy came on and nearly helped the Bears to victory, but David said Zelzer will be back in net tonight.

“He’s going to get a chance to do what we brought him here to do,” David said.

Bryan Hodges will continue to be out with an upper body injury. Defenseman Vince Stefan was lost Saturday with a broken ankle. Quinton Neville will replace Stefan.

“Neville is a quick study,” David said. “Obviously, he hasn’t been in any games this playoff round, but he has watched all the games with great attentiveness.”

The winner gets the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, which defeated the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 4-1 in Game 5 on Sunday in Wenatchee.

“We’re going to need a great performance by everybody,” David said. “It’s an exciting time. Unfortunately we weren’t able to close it out, but that’s playoff hockey for you.

“We’ll see what kind of energy we have tomorrow night.”


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