The Kenai River Brown Bears kicked off a pivotal North American Hockey League series by beating the host Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 4-2 on Wednesday in front of 1,676 fans.
The top four teams out of the West Division make the playoffs. The Brown Bears (20-17-4) remain in fourth place with 44 points, while Fresno (14-21-4) is tied for fifth place with Dawson Creek (British Columbia) with 32 points. Wenatchee (Wash.) is in third with 48 points.
The Brown Bears conclude a nine-game road trip by playing Fresno on Friday and Saturday at 6:35 p.m. Alaska Standard Time.
"This series is extremely, extremely pivotal," Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. "I would say it's just as important as our first playoff round, if we make it, because we don't make it if we don't win the majority of our games from here on out."
The Bears have 17 games left in the regular season, and four of those come against Fresno.
"When you play the team that is chasing you, either you're taking points from them, or they're taking points from you," David said. "It's nice to control your own destiny and not have to turn on the Internet to follow games, instead."
David said he has been extremely pleased with the recent emergence of the all-rookie line of Zack Capozza, Alex Frere and Kyle Keenan.
That line scored the first period's lone goal on Wednesday when Capozza tallied his fifth goal of the year on an assist from Frere.
"They are starting to have a bit of a scoring touch," David said of the rookie line via cell phone after the game. "It's nice. We definitely need secondary scoring to be successful."
The Brown Bears came out and outshot the Monsters 16-7 in the first period and showed they had put an ugly 6-1 Sunday loss to Dawson Creek in the rearview mirror.
"Not to make any excuses, but we were exhausted on Sunday," David said. "We got beat all over the ice. Nothing went our way. It was literally just one of those days."
Fresno came back with the lone goal of the second period when Jeffrey Anderson tallied to tie the game.
Just 38 seconds into the third period, the Brown Bears took the lead back when Erick Ware notched his fourth goal of the year. Frere assisted the power-play tally.
About 5 minutes later, Fresno came back with a power-play tally. Kenai River was 1-for-7 on the power play, while Fresno was 1-for-6.
That's a big improvement from Sunday, when Dawson Creek was 3-for-9 on the power play, while Kenai River was 0-for-12 and gave up a shorthanded goal.
With 5:00 left on the clock, Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe scored the game-winner on assists from Brett Lubanski and Alec Thieda. Raymond Stenehjem iced the game with 52 seconds left with an empty-net goal.
Duwe missed the Dawson Creek series due to attending classes at Soldotna, but gave the team a boost with his 10th goal of the year. Thieda was playing his first game after being acquired from the Texas Tornado.
"Alec Thieda was awarded the player of the game," David said. "He was very good. He adjusted pretty quickly."
Mathias Dahlstrom made 20 saves to pick up the win, while Tom Conlin had 32 saves for Fresno.
Brown Bears 4, Monsters 2
Kenai River 1 0 3 --4
Fresno 0 1 1 --2
First period -- 1. Kenai River, Capozza (Frere), 3:14. Penalties -- Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fresno 4 for 8:00.
Second period -- 2. Fresno, Anderson (Sutliffe, Freeman), 17:02. Penalties -- Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fresno 1 for 2:00.
Third period -- 3. Kenai River, Ware (Frere), pp, 0:38; 4. Fresno, Coleman (Cox, Lovick), pp, 5:25; 5. Kenai River, Duwe (Lubanski, Thieda), 15:00; 6. Kenai River, Stenehjem (Beck), en, 19:08. Penalties -- Kenai River 5 for 21:00; Fresno 4 for 11:00.
Shots on goal -- Kenai River 16-9-11--36; Fresno 7-6-9--22.
Goalies -- Kenai River, Dahlstrom (22 shots, 20 saves); Fresno, Conlin (35 shots, 32 saves).
Power plays -- Kenai River 1 for 7; Fresno 1 for 6.
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