The Fairbanks Ice Dogs started the season by taking a pair of games from the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center in North American Hockey League play.
Friday, the Dogs notched a 5-1 victory in front of 661 fans. Saturday, the teams went back to the close games that were typical last season, as Fairbanks scored the last two goals of the game for a 5-4 victory and 2-0 lead in the ERA Alaska Cup.
Friday, the Dogs, returning 14 from a team that came within a game of winning the West Division playoffs last season, took advantage of the Bears’ youth, inexperience and nerves.
Last season, the Dogs did not win at the sports center until March 1 on their fifth try, but this season they won in the season opener for both teams.
“It’s nice to know we are able to win and compete here,” Fairbanks coach Trevor Stewart said.
Friday also marked the debut of new Brown Bears coach Geoff Beauparlant, who had spent the last three seasons as a Fairbanks assistant.
“I think we played hard in spurts,” Beauparlant said. “There were times we put pressure on them.
“Our inexperience showed, but that’s not an excuse. We have to play more consistently.”
The first period was dead even on shots at 9 apiece. The only goal came midway through the period, when the Bears got caught on a long shift and Duggie Lagrone, the Colorado College recruit, scored on a three-on-two.
Beauparlant said he counted five good scoring chances for the Bears during the first period. He said cashing in on one or two would have set a different tone in the game.
“We have to bear down on those scoring chances,” he said.
Stewart agreed the Bears put some heat on the Dogs, but said goalie Kevin Aldridge, already committed to Lake Superior State University, did a good job of weathering the storm.
In the second period, the nerves and inexperience of the Bears were on display.
Kenai River struggled settling the puck and escaping the defensive zone. The Dogs pounced, outshooting Kenai River 17-5.
Thanks to David Kaplan and Lonnie Clary goals, the Dogs led 3-0 with 11:13 left in the period.
And had it not been for some sterling saves by Bears goalie Zach Quinn, it would have been worse.
“The decision-making at the blue line, offensively and defensively, was poor,” Beauparlant said. “I’m not pulling any punches.
“We made bad decisions and they put them in the back of the net.”
Brad LeLievre is one of nine Brown Bears returning from a squad that went 8-8 against the Dogs last year, although that number was technically eight on Friday because defenseman Vince Stefan is out with an injury.
LeLievre said the poor second period was a case of opening-night nerves keeping the Bears from doing the basics, like bodying attackers, clearing the puck out of the zone and getting the puck deep in the offensive zone.
“We have a lot of young guys and a lot of learning to do,” LeLievre said. “It was the first game for a lot of the guys, and it’s easy to get nervous in the first game.
“We got that out of the way, and now we can play like I know we can play.”
After the second goal of the second period, Beauparlant called a timeout to settle his team down and tell the players to get back to the basics.
It worked until late in the period, when Kenai River had just killed a power play, but then turned the puck over in the defensive zone leading to a Kyle Lee tally.
Another defensive breakdown just 21 seconds into the third period led to a Viktor Liljegren breakaway and a 5-0 lead.
Beauparlant was happy his team did not go into a shell after that. The shots were 10-9 in the third in favor of Fairbanks.
With 8:36 left in the game, the Bears were finally able to get the first frozen fish of the season tossed onto the ice.
Judd Loewenstein went behind the net and found Alec Butcher, who slid the puck across the net to the sure finish of Albin Karlsson, the Niagara University recruit.
Kenai River also hit two pipes and had two breakaways in the third.
“If we could have finished a few of those opportunities, we could have made it a ballgame with five minutes left,” Beauparlant said.
The coach said Quinn had a great debut.
“He was the heart and soul of the team tonight,” LeLievre said.
Beauparlant said Jake Bushey was solid on the blue line, and Zack Zulkanycz provided a spark at forward.
He said the team’s top-performing line was Conor Deal, Jack Gessert and Tommy Dierl.
Having worked with Beauparlant for two years, Stewart doesn’t expect too many nights like Friday.
“That team is young but they have a good coach,” Stewart said. “They are going to improve quickly.”
The Bears then came out and gave an improved performance Saturday night.
Fairbanks went up 2-0 in the first period on goals from Liljegren and Lagrone, but Kenai River closed the period in a 2-all tie when LeLievre and Butcher answered with tallies.
"I think they really came out and competed hard for 60 minutes," Beauparlant said on Saturday night. "We just didn't get a couple bounces to go our way. That's hockey."
LeLievre then had the lone tally of the second period for a 3-2 lead.
At 1:55 into the third period, Ben Campbell tied the game for Fairbanks, but with 13:48 remaining, Karlsson put the Brown Bears ahead again.
"They had a turnover and we capitilized on it and had an odd-man rush," Beauparlant said. "We stayed the course, kept to our gameplan and really wanted to keep the pedal down this time."
However, Kaplan forced another tie when he scored with 5:32 left.
With 4:02 left in the game, Fairbanks’ David Hetz took a four-minute double minor for checking from behind, putting the Bears in great position to win the game, or at least get a tie.
However, Brett Gervais wrecked those plans when he scored short-handed and unassisted with 3:36 to play.
Kris Oldham had 23 saves on 28 shots for the Bears, while Aldridge had 24 saves on 28 shots for the Dogs.
Beauparlant said he was pleased with the play of forward Brad LeLievre on Saturday, as well as Jake Bushey, Jacob Davidson and Gustav Berglund.
"We showed speed and eliminated mistakes tonight, and I'm proud of how we responded," he said. "These guys know the season is not a sprint. It's a marathon."
The Brown Bears will play next on Wednesday at 10:15 a.m. Central Time, as part of the NAHL Showcase, when they face the Lone Star Brahmas from Texas.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 1
Fairbanks 1 3 1 —5
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Lagrone (Madry, Clary), 10:45. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Kaplan (Gorowsky), 6:47; 3. Fairbanks, Clary (Madry), 8:47; 4. Fairbanks, Lee (Hetz), 18:27. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Liljegren (Munson, Wolter), 0:21; 6. Kenai River, Karlsson (Loewenstein, Butcher), 11:24.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 9-17-10—36; Kenai River 9-5-9—23.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (23 shots, 22 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (36 shots, 31 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 2.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 4
Fairbanks 2 0 3 —5
Kenai River 2 1 1 —4
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Liljegren (Munson), 1:09; 2. Fairbanks, Lagrone (Ege), pp, 6:28; 3. Kenai River, LeLievre (Decker, Spellman), 8:49; 4. Kenai River, Butcher (Fuchs, Zulkanycz), 10:03. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 5. Kenai River, LeLievre (Spellman), 18:37. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 9:00; Kenai River 4 for 11:00.
Third period — 6. Fairbanks, Ben Campbell (Gorowsky, Gervais), 1:55; 7. Kenai River, Karlsson (Fuchs), 6:12; 8. Fairbanks, Kaplan (Hetz), 14:28; 9. Fairbanks, Gervais (un), sh, 16:24. Penalties — Fairbanks 4 for 18:00, Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 5-16-7—28; Kenai River 8-12-8—28.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (28 shots, 24 saves); Kenai River, Oldham (28 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 3, Kenai River 0 for 5.