The Kenai River Brown Bears moved into a tie for the final playoff spot Friday with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in front of 898 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Bears (27-22-8) now have 62 points, which ties them with the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill for fourth place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. The Chill lost 7-1 to the Minnesota Wilderness on Friday and have four games left, while the Bears have three.
The Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild moved into sole possession of third place with 64 points with a 4-1 win over the Port Huron (Mich.) Fighting Falcons on Friday. The Wild have three games remaining.
“The effort, execution and focus was there the entire game,” Kenai River head coach Geoff 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.”
The Ice Dogs improved to 43-13-1 and clinched the top overall seed in the North American Hockey League 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 is now 11-1-1 against Kenai River this year. The Ice Dogs also have won all six of their shootouts.
Goalie Kevin Aldridge, Friday’s winner, has triumphed in four of those shootouts.
“We have skilled players who believe in themselves and good goaltending,” Stewart said in explaining the shootout success.
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 Alec Butcher streaking up the side.
Butcher beat a man at the blue line and found Sebastian 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 as the Butcher-Fuchs-Karlsson line continues to click.
Karlsson has eight points in his last five games, Fuchs has seven and Butcher, the league’s leading scorer, has eight.
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 Tayler 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.”
The Bears then killed off two penalties, while Fairbanks killed one, to get to overtime.
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.
The same two teams face off at the sports complex at 7:30 p.m.
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.