The Kenai River Brown Bears forced a deciding Game 5 in a first-round playoff series by defeating the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 4-3 Wednesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Ice Dogs, the North American Hockey League regular-season champs, are 4-0 all-time against the Bears, the No. 4 seed from the Midwest Division, in the playoffs. All of the series were sweeps except for last season when the Dogs prevailed 3-2 in Game 5 in Fairbanks.
“There’s just a lot of people still on the team that know what mistakes we did,” Kenai River forward Albin Karlsson said of Game 5, which will be Saturday in Fairbanks at 7:30 p.m. “We know what we gotta do. It’s now or never.”
In the regular season, the Bears defeated the Dogs just three times in 16 tries. If Kenai River can beat Fairbanks three times in five tries in the playoffs, Kenai River will have its first playoff series victory in six tries.
The first goal has been pivotal in the Bears-Dogs series this year. Fairbanks is 13-0 when scoring first, while Kenai River, after scoring first Wednesday, is now 5-1-1 when taking the initial lead.
Fairbanks was as close as possible to getting that first goal early in the first period, with Viktor Liljegren hitting the pipe 58 seconds into the game and Brett Gervais ringing the metalwork at the 15-minute mark.
“You always need a little luck,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “You don’t win any game against any team without a bounce or two.”
The Gervais shot came during a Fairbanks power play, and immediately after killing it off, Kenai River got to work with its top line, with passes from Alec Butcher and Sebastian Fuchs setting up Karlsson from just inside the circle for a goal with 13:02 left in the first period.
But Ross Olsson tied the game with 2:54 left in the first on a rebound goal.
The second period again belonged to the pinpoint sniping of Karlsson. With 2:33 left in the period, he got a pass from Fuchs then did most of the work himself, curling to the high slot and wristing a shot past Dogs goalie Kevin Aldridge high and on the glove side.
“It’s good timing more than good skill,” said Karlsson, who has three goals in his last two games. “I have good timing right now.”
Karlsson has been a noted sniper since joining the team last season.
“He’s got a good release, but what makes him special is his ability to rise to the occasion in big games,” Beauparlant said. “I thought he did that tonight. His whole line was good tonight.”
But with 18:04 left in the third period, Olsson answered right back for a 2-2 game when Jacob Hetz found him with a nice pass right in front of the net.
But Kenai River responded to the goal by owning the next eight minutes of play.
“We didn’t have too many ups and downs,” Beauparlant said. “We stayed on task for the most part.”
Matt Rudin pushed the Bears ahead with his first goal of the playoffs with 15:52 to play. Zack Zulkanycz and Jack Gessert had assists.
Then with 11:47 left, Jacob Davidson buried a shot for a power-play goal, assisted by Vince Stefan and Zulkanycz.
The Bears had the advantage on the power play, converting their lone opportunity while Fairbanks went 0 for 3.
Special teams has loomed large in the series. Fairbanks was 1 for 5 while Kenai River was 0 for 2 in Fairbanks’ 3-0 Game 1 victory, Kenai River was 1 for 3 while Fairbanks was 0 for 3 in the Bears’ 3-2 Game 2 victory, and Fairbanks was 2 for 3 while the Bears were 0-2 in losing Game 3 5-2.
Down 4-2, Fairbanks pressed hard in the last 10 minutes, pulling Aldridge with 2:04 left. But it was not until seven seconds remained that Liljegren was able to score on a protracted scrum in front of the net.
“A lot of credit tonight goes to the defensive corps,” Beauparlant said. “They stepped up and limited their opportunities.”
Kenai River kept Fairbanks from a shot in the final seven seconds.
“Kenai wanted it a little more than us tonight,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said, who was again without two of his five top scorers in Tayler Munson and Kyle Lee. “Their goaltending was really good. That was the difference.”
Kris Oldham, at the tender age of 16, got his first playoff start for the Bears and turned it into a victory, making 37 saves while Aldridge had 19 saves.
Oldham calmly turned away most of the Ice Dogs’ forays, and his only mistake was a rebound that led to the first goal.
“He’s one of those kids for his age that is very poised,” Beauparlant said. “He does make some youthful mistakes, and that’s expected.
“At the same time, he rebounds quickly and has a great presence in net.
“He’s never too much up or down. He’s worked hard this year to learn how to be a junior hockey player.”
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 3
Fairbanks 1 0 2 —3
Kenai River 1 1 2 —4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Butcher, Fuchs), 6:58; 2. Fairbanks, Olsson (Lagrone, Hetz), 17:06. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River (Fuchs, Butcher), 17:27. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Olsson (Lagrone, Mueller), 1:56; 5. Kenai River, Rudin (Zulkanycz, Gessert), 4:08; 6. Kenai River, Davidson (Stefan, Zulkanycz), pp, 8:13; 7. Fairbanks, Liljegren (un.), es, 19:53.
Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 8-17-15—40; Kenai River 9-7-7—23.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Aldridge (23 shots, 19 saves); Kenai River, Oldham (40 shots, 37 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 3; Kenai River for 1.