For the second straight game, the Kenai River Brown Bears were within 10 minutes of knocking the Fairbanks Ice Dogs out of the North American Hockey League West Division playoffs.
For the second straight game, the Ice Dogs escaped with a victory.
Fairbanks scored three goals in the final 11 minutes, 7 seconds, of the game to defeat the Bears 3-2 on Monday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, winning the series 3-2 in front of 2,242 fans.
Fairbanks moves on to face the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the West Division finals. A victory would give the Ice Dogs a fourth straight appearance at the Robertson Cup. No other team in the league currently has been there more than two straight years.
“We pushed a real good team right to the edge,” Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. “We weren’t able to finish them off.”
Kenai River had given up the tying goal with 1:16 left in Saturday’s overtime loss to Fairbanks, but the Bears showed no ill effects in the first period Monday, outshooting the Dogs 16-4.
Albin Karlsson gave the Bears the lead on a power-play goal assisted by Alec Butcher and Alex Jackstadt.
Just 3:16 into the second period, Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz gave the Bears a 2-0 lead when he tipped in a shot by Judd Loewenstein. Conor Deal also assisted.
Then the Dogs began to turn up the heat. They would outshoot the Bears 15-8 in the second and 17-7 in the third.
“We did not keep our foot on the pedal,” David said. “We kind of played on our heels a little bit the last two nights when we had the lead.”
The Ice Dogs began breaking through with 11:07 left in the game, when Devin Loe scored. Colten Wolter scored with 8:39 to play, while Jayson Angus had the game-winner with just 1:03 remaining.
“They had 20 minutes to play and they came out of the locker room playing like they had nothing to lose,” David said. “We did not play aggressive enough.”
In the past three seasons, the Ice Dogs have been to the semifinals of the Robertson Cup, won the cup and finished second.
Before this season, the Brown Bears had never won a playoff game.
David said that difference in experience showed in his young team in the latter stages of the game.
“They have guys in that locker room that felt comfortable getting after it in the second and third period,” David said. “We couldn’t hold them off.”
David did say the season series with the Ice Dogs — and the playoff series in particular — will be invaluable to the core of the Bears returning next season.
The Bears and Dogs were 8-8 against each other during the regular season, with the Dogs winning the Era Alaska Cup due to two of the Bears wins coming in shootouts.
The playoff series saw each game, in effect, decided by one goal because Fairbanks had a late empty-netter to win Game 1 by two goals.
“We definitely joined the party,” David said. “It’s nice to be in the mix with the top teams.
“It’s safe to say we’ve proven we are a top team in this league. Fairbanks has a great chance of going to a fourth Robertson Cup.”
Aging out for the Bears are Brad Duwe, Mikhail Bushinski, Ryan Walker, Marcus Zelzer, Chris Nuth, Dylan Meier and Zac Lazzaro.
David is happy to say all have college commitments.
“Everyone on this team was great,” David said. “There was not one incident in town, no issues with curfew.
“We did an extraordinary amount of community service. I want to thank the fans for coming out and supporting us.”
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2
Kenai River 1 1 0 —2
Fairbanks 0 0 3 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Butcher, Jackstadt), pp, 18:53. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Deal (LeLievre, Zulkanycz), 3:16. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Loe (Wolter), 8:53; 4. Fairbanks, Wolter (Hinz), 11:21; 5. Fairbanks, Angus (Lagrone, Clemment), 18:57. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 16-8-7—31; Fairbanks 4-15-17—36.
Goalies — Kenai River, Zelzer (36 shots, 33 saves); Fairbanks, Perry (31 shots, 29 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Fairbanks 0 for 4.