The Fairbanks Ice Dogs put the Kenai River Brown Bears on the brink of elimination with a 5-2 victory Tuesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Ice Dogs now lead the best-of-five, first-round series 2-1. Game 4 is tonight at 7 p.m. at the sports complex, while Game 5, if necessary, is Saturday in Fairbanks.
“I thought we played pretty well from the first period through the third period,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said after avoiding losing two straight for a fifth time this season and a first time against the Bears. “In the second period, they had momentum and we were fortunate to come out ahead 3-2.
“We know it’s going to be intense tomorrow night.”
The teams have now played 19 times this season, with the Ice Dogs coming away with 15 victories.
From such a large sample size has emerged a pattern.
When Fairbanks scores first, Kenai River has a tendency to get away from its systems.
“There’s no doubt that guys try to take matters into their own hands, get off course and don’t stay on task,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “That’s what has happened every time we have suffered a big loss. Guys go on their own page. We need to play as a team.”
When teams play individual hockey against the Ice Dogs, the team with the best record and most goals in the North American Hockey League regular season, lopsided games result.
The Ice Dogs are now 13-0 when scoring first against Kenai River. The Bears have lost 10 games by three or more goals this season, and nine of those games have come to the Ice Dogs.
The full depth of Fairbanks’ offensive power was on display Tuesday, as 11 players had a single point, with Duggie Lagrone notching a pair of assists.
And this was without Tayler Munson and Kyle Lee in the lineup. Munson, first on the Dogs in scoring, and Lee, tied for fourth on the team in scoring, both left recent games against the Bears with injuries. Stewart did not say why they didn’t play Tuesday, or if they will play today.
Beauparlant said his team started the game playing OK, with Dogs goalie Kevin Aldridge making a point-blank save on Zack Zulkanycz just 40 seconds in.
With 7:46 left in the first, Wyatt Ege, who has had a knack for scoring on Bears goalie Zach Quinn from distance this season, floated a shot from the blue line through traffic and into the net.
“They scored, and it’s kind of been the same old song,” Beauparlant said. “The next shift, we are vulnerable, and sure enough it was 2-0.”
The Bears committed a turnover in their own zone and Yannick Vedel pounced for a 2-0 game just 20 seconds after Ege’s tally.
Beauparlant immediately called timeout and the Bears settled down, with Nathan Colwell converting a Ben Campbell rebound from the slot for a 2-1 game with 2:44 left in the first.
But then Fairbanks’ improved power play came to the fore. The Ice Dogs ended the season with a hot power play, but had gone seven man advantages without a score after Munson scored in the opening power play of the series Friday.
Some nice tic-tac-toe passing from Lagrone to Ethan Somoza to Ross Olsson made it 3-1 with 34 seconds left in the first period.
Stewart said the Ice Dogs really didn’t change anything on the power play, but Beauparlant, an Ice Dogs assistant for the past three years, wasn’t about to fall for that one.
“They made some changes,” Beauparlant said. “We’re not oblivious to that type of stuff. We knew they hadn’t scored on their last seven.
“We tried to counter through doing a couple things, but we were just very slow to react.”
In the second period, the Bears stayed the course and some pretty passing between Albin Karlsson, Judd Loewenstein and Sebastian Fuchs led to a Karlsson tally. The lone goal of the second made it a 3-2 game headed to the third.
Beauparlant credited Campbell and Loewenstein, the two defensemen with assists, with very strong games.
But Kenai River had to start the third on the penalty kill, and just 48 seconds in Burgess scored for a two-goal cushion.
Stewart said the goal didn’t come on a set play coming out of the locker room, but Beauparlant was of the opinion that it did.
“It was obviously a very important point in the game,” Stewart said. “We had a one-goal lead going into the third period, and we were able to take advantage of the power play.”
Down two goals, Beauparlant said his squad played as individuals and not a team.
“We talked about it after, we played selfish hockey,” he said. “When we play selfish hockey, there is no team we are going to beat.”
With 7:28 left in the third, Johnny Mueller iced the game and took all the air out of the crowd of 837 by beating Quinn. Quinn made 27 saves, while Aldridge had 22.
“The fan support was great for a midweek game,” Beauparlant said. “It was loud, and it was an exciting crowd to play in front of.
“We stunk up the joint. Hopefully, we’ll have the same support tomorrow night. I know we’ll be better tomorrow night.”
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 3 0 2 —5
Kenai River 1 1 0 —2
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Ege (Clary), 12:14; 2. Fairbanks, Vedel (Gervais), 12:34; 3. Kenai River, Colwell (Campbell), 17:16; 4. Fairbanks, Olsson (Somoza, Lagrone), pp, 19:26. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 5. Kenai River, Karlsson (Loewenstein, Fuchs), 9:22. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 6. Fairbanks, Burgess (Liljegren, Hinz), pp, 0:48; 7. Fairbanks, Mueller (Hetz, Lagrone), 12:32. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 11-14-7—32; Kenai River 6-11-7—24.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (24 shots, 22 saves); Kenai River, Quinn (32 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 2 for 3, Kenai River 0 for 2.