Hockey is a game of inches. But it's also a game of the extra mile.
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs put in the extra effort to get a pair of gritty goals in besting the Kenai River Brown Bears 2-1 on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Ice Dogs won for the 10th time in 11 tries to move into pole position in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with a 20-8-0 record good for 40 points.
The Bears, losers of 12 of 14, fall to 14-12-3 and are tied with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild for the fourth and the final playoff spot from the Midwest with 31 points.
With a snowstorm tamping down the crowd to 516, the sports complex did not have a ton of energy, and Brown Bears coach Geoff Beauparlant said his squad did not help matters.
"I thought they had more energy," said Beauparlant, who served the final game of a five-game suspension due to a line brawl at the end of a Nov. 23 game. "They played like they wanted redemption from Saturday."
The Bears had notched a 5-3 victory over Fairbanks on Dec. 7, but the Ice Dogs' victory Friday put them up 8-1 in the battle for the Era Alaska Cup, the season-long, 16-game contest for Alaska junior hockey supremacy.
Alec Butcher, the NAHL's leading scorer at 36 points, put the Bears up 1-0 just 2 minutes, 25 seconds, into the game. Butcher picked up a turnover at the blue line and also used some interference from the linesman to storm in alone on Fairbanks goalie Patrick Munson.
But Brown Bears captain Jake Davidson said all was not well in the early going for Kenai River. Davidson said a series of misreads and mistakes afflicted his squad.
Worse, frustration over those misplays started to cut into Kenai River's energy.
"Our whole group knows we have to come tomorrow with a better effort," Davidson said. "We got down early. We need to get back up quicker."
Fairbanks is a veteran team tied for the second-most points in the league. With the puck pressure the Ice Dogs generate, mistakes are a given.
Fairbanks leads the league with 35.07 shots per game and is second in allowing just 23.19 bids per contest. The Bears were outshot 44-25 on Friday.
"We're going to make mistakes, but when we do we have to minimize them as much as possible," Davidson said.
The Bears did not do that in the two game-deciding goals in the second period. Beauparlant said that on both goals, the defense was able to get the puck up to the forwards, but the forwards could not clear the zone.
"When the D works hard and moves the puck up the ice, it can't be coming right back in," Beauparlant said. "That puts a lot of pressure on them."
With 12:03 to play in the second, the Ice Dogs got multiple whacks in the slot until Viktor Liljegren finally connected.
With 2:34 left in the second, Colton Wolter somehow trickled the puck through two Bears players and into the slot for Jacob Hetz, who lit the lamp.
At the 17:42 mark of the second, Kenai River's Albin Karlsson had nicked a wrister off the pipe, but it was the extra mile, and not inches, that told Friday's tale.
"Guys were going the extra mile and going to the net with a purpose and a heavy stick and looking to score goals," Fairbanks assistant Paul Kirtland said.
Beauparlant said those are the goals Kenai River needs to start scoring. He said the Bears are too reluctant to throw the puck in front of the net and dig out a goal.
"It's nice when Butcher breaks into the slot alone and throws one over the goalie's shoulder, but those types of goals don't happen too often," the coach said.
Zach Quinn made 42 saves for the Bears, the best being a glove save from his belly during a second-period power play.
"Zach Quinn played confidently and aggressively," Beauparlant said. "He tracked the puck well and controlled his rebounds. He's played that way three games in a row and we're 1-2 in those games."
Patrick Munson had 24 saves for the Dogs and improved to 6-1 with a 1.58 goals against average and .929 save percentage.
"Packy has been great every time we have called on him," Kirtland said. "I guess you could call him a backup, but he has played well every time we have called on him."
The same two teams drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the sports complex before dispersing for Christmas break.
Notes: The Bears have named captains. Davidson is the home captain, while Vince Stefan and Conor Deal are assistant home captains. On the road, Eric Purcell is the captain, while Zack Zulkanycz and Jake Bushey are assistants. … The Bears and Dogs are nothing if not veteran Alaska winter travelers. Kirtland was nonplused by the low visibility on the flight down. "I slept the whole way," he said. "We're used to it. It's our third time down here."
Ice Dogs 2, Brown Bears 1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Butcher (un.), 2:25. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Liljegren (T. Munson, Gorowsky), 7:57; 3. Fairbanks, Hetz (Wolter, Gorowsky), 17:26. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 18-18-8—44; Kenai River 10-9-6—25.
Goalies — Fairbanks, P. Munson (25 shots, 24 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (44 shots, 42 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 3, Kenai River 0 for 3.