The Kenai River Brown Bears moved into sole possession of the fourth playoff spot in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with a 4-2 victory over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“It’s a big win for us for many reasons, moving into sole possession of fourth place being the primary one,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “To take three of four points from the best team in the league right now is not an easy task.”
The Bears (28-22-8) picked up their 64th point with the victory, moving them ahead of the 62 points of the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill. Kenai River has two games left, while Coulee Region has three games left.
The Bears also are one point behind third-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild. The Wild also have two games remaining.
The Bears improved to 3-11 this season against the Ice Dogs, and also finished 1-7 against the Dogs at the sports complex.
Fairbanks (43-14-1) saw a six-game winning streak snapped, and also a string of 13 games with at least a point.
Beauparlant said it was one of the team’s better weekends of hockey all season.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve peaked,” he said. “We’re just starting to figure it out as far as the major consistencies. That’s a positive sign if things work out and we get to keep playing after next weekend.”
Kenai River got the Saturday victory in front of 1,139 by starting fast and holding on in the third period.
Adam Kresl, playing in just his second game with the team after coming from the Salt Lake City Moose of the Western States Hockey League, scored 6:47 into the contest on assists from Gustav Berglund and Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz, who would finish the night with three assists.
With 5:49 left in the first period, Sebastian Fuchs scored on the power play, assisted by Alec Butcher and Frankie Spellman.
Fuchs has eight points in his last six games, while Butcher, the league’s leading scorer, has nine in his last six.
Kresl, who had 27 goals and 16 assists in 41 games for the Moose, struck again with 5:23 left, assisted by Zulkanycz and Jacob Wolter.
Beauparlant said Kresl got both his goals by going hard to the net, and credited linemates Zulkanycz and Wolter with getting the puck to the net for him.
“He fits in well,” Beauparlant said. “He plays the style we want to play. He’s worked hard and taken the opportunity and run with it.”
After a scoreless second period, Fairbanks had the lead down to 3-2 with 8:34 left in the third period on power-play goals from Tayler Munson and Brett Gervais, but Tyler Andrews, assisted by Zulkanycz and Spellman, scored on the empty net to ice the game.
“We got a little hesitant in the third period and allowed them to re-enter the game and grab a couple of goals,” Beauparlant said. “That’s what good teams do, but good teams also find a way to get it done at the end, and that’s what we did.”
Kris Oldham shut the door in net.
“He’s finding a way to win games in this league, and that’s not easy to do,” Beauparlant said. “Every time he’s been in a difficult situation he’s risen to the occasion, and that’s the sign of a strong, young goaltender.”
Beauparlant said RJ Salvato had his best game since arriving in a trade in early February. He said players like Matt Rudin, Jack Gessert and Tommy Dierl contributed to the total team effort.
The coach also added that Butcher came out of the game due to a precautionary measure after blocking a shot, and that he should be fine.
“The fan support was great this weekend,” Beauparlant said. “We had about 900 on Friday and close to 1,200 tonight. It’s been great all year and we can’t thank them enough for their support.”
On Friday, the Bears lost to the Ice Dogs 3-2 in a shootout in front of 898 fans.
“The effort, execution and focus was there the entire game,” Beauparlant said. “We had opportunities to win the game.
“We can’t look at it as a point lost. We have to look at it as a point earned.”
With the win, the Ice Dogs clinched the top overall seed in the Robertson Cup playoffs.
Due to a change in playoff format this year, the Ice Dogs have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Under the previous format, the Robertson Cup finals were held at a neutral site.
“Every game is the next most important game, but when the playoff format came out that was something we definitely set our sights on,” Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart said. “In our opinion, there is no better place to play than the Big Dipper.
“It’s a good incentive to keep playing.”
Two major reasons the Ice Dogs finish on top in the regular season were on display Friday — beating the Brown Bears and winning shootouts.
Fairbanks moved to 11-1-1 against Kenai River this year after the Friday win. The Ice Dogs also have won all six of their shootouts.
Goalie Kevin Aldridge, Friday’s winner, has triumphed in four of those shootouts.
The Bears fell to 4-5 in shootouts.
The last time the teams met before Friday, Fairbanks hung a 7-1 defeat on the Brown Bears in Fairbanks, but the Bears kept the Dogs from revving up the league’s top offense Friday. Both coaches called the chances about even.
Fairbanks struck first midway through the first period when Viktor Liljegren found Todd Burgess wide open in the slot.
But the Bears came back with two goals in 2 minutes, 11 seconds, to take the lead.
With just 13 seconds left in the first period, Judd Loewenstein made a nice play to find Butcher streaking up the side.
Butcher beat a man at the blue line and found Fuchs in front, who dumped the puck to Albin Karlsson for a goal.
Then early in the second, Butcher threw the puck in front and Vince Stefan was able to carve out a goal. Fuchs also got an assist.
But Fairbanks tied the game with 12:24 left in the second when a Doug Rose shot from the point found its way through two defenders and into the net.
“It bounced in off a skate,” Beauparlant said. “It was just bad luck.”
The Ice Dogs amped up the attack at the end of the second, but goalie Zach Quinn, who had 34 saves, had the answer. Quinn also was tested in the opening minute of the third, when he stopped a Munson breakaway.
“Munson made a move and Quinn stayed with him,” Beauparlant said. “That was huge because it kept things from going sour right away.”
In the shootout, Aldridge stopped all five Kenai River shooters, while the Ice Dogs solved Quinn on the fifth attempt, when Liljegren beat him with a forehand on the stick side.
Kenai River closes the regular season with games Friday and Saturday in Fairbanks, where the Dogs are 22-5-1 this season. One of the regulation losses and the overtime loss came to the Bears.
“We’ll be ready and I’m sure they’ll be ready,” Beauparlant said. “Our focus is getting two points Friday.”
Today, the Bears will hold their Feed the Bears dinner at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex from 4 to 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the Bears’ Den, or by calling the office at 262-7825.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2, SO
Fairbanks 1 1 0 0 1 —3
Kenai River 1 1 0 0 0 —2
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Burgess (Liljegren, Munson), 9:34; 2. Kenai River, Karlsson (Butcher, Fuchs), 19:47. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Stefan (Butcher, Fuchs), 1:58; 4. Fairbanks, Rose (Gervais, Wolter), pp, 7:36. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — none.
Shootout — Fairbanks 1 (Munson NG, Burgess NG, Lee NG, Olsson NG, Liljegren G); Kenai River 0 (Berglund NG, Karlsson NG, Fuchs NG, Butcher NG, Wolter NG).
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 12-14-8-2—36; Kenai River 10-11-5-1—27.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (27 shots, 25 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (36 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 3; Kenai River 0 for 3.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 2
Fairbanks 0 0 2 —2
Kenai River 3 0 1 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Kresl (Berglund, Zulkanycz), 6:47; 2. Kenai River, Fuchs (Butcher, Spellman), 14:11; 3. Kenai River, Kresl (Zulkanycz, Wolter), 14:37. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 4 for 19:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Munson (Liljegren, Lagrone), pp, 0:42; 5. Fairbanks, Gervais (Rose, Lagrone), pp, 11:26; 6. Kenai River, Andrews (Zulkanycz, Spellman), en, 18:56. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 11-13-9—33; Kenai River 16-9-5—30.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Munson (29 shots, 26 saves); Kenai River, Oldham (33 shots, 31 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 2 for 8; Kenai River 1 for 3.