The Kenai River Brown Bears amassed a lot of less-than-pretty numbers against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs this season.
But right now, the only numbers that matter are 1-1.
Alec Butcher notched a hat trick — the first of the year for the regular-season scoring champ — to give the Kenai River Brown Bears a 3-2 victory over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday in the second game of the first-round playoff series at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks.
Butcher scored with 8 minutes, 45 seconds, left in the overtime period to even the North American Hockey League series at 1-1 in front of 2,242 fans.
“Your top players have to be your best players and he did that tonight,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “He worked for it, the whole team competed hard tonight.
“They played physical and we looked like a team that belonged in a playoff series. Unlike (Friday) night, when we let things happen, tonight we made things happen.”
The Bears finished the regular season 3-13 against Fairbanks, but were 3-1-1 in the series when scoring first.
After a scoreless first period, Butcher, who had no points in his last three games after a seven-game point streak, got that crucial first goal of the game on assists from Nathan Colwell and Judd Loewenstein with 11:06 left in the second period.
Before the end of the second period, Kenai River goalie Zach Quinn and Fairbanks goalie Kevin Aldridge traded goals they wish they could have back.
Wyatt Ege scored from just outside the blue line on Quinn, while Butcher scored from just inside the blue line on Aldridge.
“It was an unfortunate goal against, but we bounced right back,” Beauparlant said.
With 13:03 left in the third, Johnny Mueller got the equalizer for Fairbanks.
Late in the third period, Tyler Andrews took a shot from the point and Matt Rudin just missed on the rebound, banging the potential game-winner off the pipe.
In overtime, Quinn made a game-saving save with Jacob Hetz right on his doorstep.
“He’s been our rock,” Beauparlant said. “He never let up, even after the soft one from distance. He stood his ground and played with confidence.”
Butcher scored on the power play to end the game on assists from Albin Karlsson and Andrews.
Beauparlant said Butcher put in a rebound from a Karlsson shot.
“All the way around, guys competed the entire time,” Beauparlant said. “That’s what ultimately pushed us to the first win of the series.”
Friday, Fairbanks scored a goal in each period for a 3-0 win in front of 2,242.
Aldridge made 23 saves as the Brown Bears were shut out for the fourth time this season and the first time by the Ice Dogs.
“The effort was good but it wasn’t good enough,” Beauparlant said. “The bottom line was we need to capitalize on opportunities.”
Just 1 minute, 30 seconds, into the game, Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz had a breakaway.
“I thought he made a good move,” Beauparlant said. “He ended up shooting it over on his backhand, or that’s what it looked like to us.”
Beauparlant said he expected the Ice Dogs to come out strong.
Fairbanks did just that, outshooting Kenai River 14-3 in the first period en route to a 34-23 advantage for the game.
But the Bears head coach said his squad did a good job of weathering the storm.
Tayler Munson had the lone goal of the first period. Zulkanycz was sent to the box for a slash with 10:09 left in the first, and Fairbanks controlled the puck until Munson scored with 8:44 left in the first.
That goal was key because on Friday the Ice Dogs moved to 12-0 this season against the Bears when scoring first.
“It had to be a good shot to beat him,” Beauparlant said. “It went off the post and in.”
Beauparlant said the Brown Bears were then able to get some momentum in the second period, outshooting Fairbanks 12-9.
“We outshot them, but we didn’t bury the puck,” Beauparlant said. “When we have zero, we can’t win.”
The momentum turned when Lonnie Clary scored on a 3-on-2 with 4:53 left in the second for a 2-0 lead.
“We didn’t have enough effort on the backcheck and they executed a play,” Beauparlant said. “We left the D out to dry.”
Frankie Spellman was given a double minor with 15 seconds left in the second period, but the Bears were able to kill it off.
Fairbanks was 1 for 5 on the power play, while Kenai River was 0 for 2.
“I thought we killed penalties extremely well tonight,” Beauparlant said.
With 10:49 left in the game, Hans Gorowsky beat the Kenai River defense to the outside for a 3-0 advantage.
The Bears had chances late. Sebastian Fuchs was alone out front after a Fairbanks turnover, but Aldridge came up big. Ben Campbell clanged one off the pipe with 1:35 to play.
“The last minute and a half is a little too late,” Beauparlant said. “We need to put our chances in in the first and second period. We can’t wait until the third period.”
Game 3 will be Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The first 1,000 fans receive a rally towel.
“I expect another battle like it was tonight,” Beauparlant said. “Both teams are hungry. It should be an intense, hard-fought game at the sports complex.”
Game 4 will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the sports complex.
Game 5 would be in Fairbanks, where the Ice Dogs have home ice throughout the Robertson Cup playoffs thanks to winning the NAHL regular season title.
The Bears are seeking the first playoff series victory in six trips to the playoffs. Four of those losses came to Fairbanks.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 0
Kenai River 0 0 0 —0
Fairbanks 1 1 1 —3
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Munson (Rose, Hinz), pp, 11:16. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Clary (Wolter, Hinz), 15:07. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 16:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Gorowsky (Hetz), 9:11. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 3-12-8—23; Fairbanks 14-9-11—34.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (34 shots, 31 saves); Fairbanks, Aldridge (23 shots, 23 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 2; Fairbanks 1 for 5.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 2
Kenai River 0 2 0 1 —3
Fairbanks 0 1 1 0 —2
First period — none. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 17:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 1. Kenai River, Butcher (Colwell, Loewenstein), 8:54; 2. Fairbanks, Ege (un.), 18:44; 3. Kenai River, Butcher (un.), 19:45. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 6:00; Fairbanks 1 for 4:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Mueller (Hetz, Burgess), 6:57. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 5. Kenai River, Butcher (Karlsson, Andrews), pp, 11:15. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 6-5-11-7—29; Fairbanks 6-11-19-8—45.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (45 shots, 43 saves); Fairbanks, Aldridge (29 shots, 26 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Fairbanks 0 for 3.