Less than 72 hours after a bruising overtime contest in Fairbanks, the Kenai River Brown Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs commence a de facto best-of-three playoff series tonight at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“The time for teaching is done,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said.
The playoffs are all about testing and resting.
Fairbanks, the regular-season champs in the North American Hockey League, got the jump in the first-round series Friday with a 3-0 victory, the Ice Dogs’ 14th in 17 tries against the Bears this season.
But Kenai River, the fourth seed out of the Midwest Division, snapped a three-game skid to the Ice Dogs with a 3-2 overtime win Saturday. Alec Butcher, the NAHL’s regular-season scoring champ, completed his hat trick with the game-winner 11 minutes, 15 seconds, into the 20-minute overtime period.
So just like the Bears did last season in an eventual five-game, first-round loss to the Ice Dogs, Kenai River gave itself a chance by winning one of the two opening games in Fairbanks.
“It would have been tough,” Beauparlant said of the prospect of digging out of an 0-2 hole. “We knew at a minimum we had to get at least one. It’s a tough place to play at any point of the season, especially the playoffs.
“But now our focus has to be on Game 3.”
The Ice Dogs have only lost two straight games four times this season, and have yet to drop two straight to the Bears.
With Fairbanks’ track record of speedy recoveries, Beauparlant knows there is only one thing his squad can do.
“We need to play like we did Saturday night,” he said. “We need to play a good, smart hockey game and use the energy from our fans to create momentum.
“We need to make sure we stay focused on what we are trying to do and not get away from the game plan.”
A particular challenge is staying the course no matter what happens on the scoreboard. Scoring first has been a leading indicator between the Bears and Dogs this season.
In the regular season, Fairbanks was 11-0 when scoring first against Kenai River, and 33-5 when scoring first overall. Kenai River was 3-1-1 when scoring first against the Ice Dogs, and 20-3-4 when striking first overall.
The Ice Dogs scored first in Friday’s game, while the Brown Bears drew first blood Saturday.
Beauparlant said that whether his team scores or is scored upon, that can’t change the approach. While scoring creates momentum, it can sometimes go the other way, like on Saturday when Butcher scored for a 2-1 lead just 1:01 after Fairbanks’ Wyatt Ege tied the game.
“We can’t let it affect us either way,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears, 0-5 all-time in playoff series and 0-4 against the Ice Dogs, came away with the weekend split despite getting goals from only one player — Butcher.
“Our best players have to be our best players to succeed in the playoffs, and that’s true at any time,” Beauparlant said. “But it wasn’t just Alec.”
The coach said the penalty kill was very good. Fairbanks had a hot power play coming into the playoffs and scored on its first try with the man advantage Friday, but then came up empty in its next seven attempts. Meanwhile, Butcher’s game-winner Saturday came on the power play.
“He wasn’t the only one getting chances,” Beauparlant said. “That’s the good part.”
Beauparlant said that none of his players are injured to the point that they will not be available today.
Tayler Munson, Fairbanks’ leading scorer in the regular season, left Saturday’s game with an injury, but his status is not known for tonight.
“We have to prepare assuming everybody is going to play,” Beauparlant said.
The Brown Bears are encouraging fans to wear white for a “whiteout,” and the first 1,000 fans in the door get a rally towel.
Game 4 of the series will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the sports complex, while Game 5, if necessary, will be Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Fairbanks.
The winner of the series plays the winner of the series between the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild and Minnesota Wilderness. The Wild lead the series 2-1 and host the final games of the series Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.