Donning pink and carrying the love of family in his heart, Josh Benton put the Kenai River Brown Bears on his back.
The goaltender was nearly unflappable in delivering his best performance of the season on a night when his squad needed him most, making 46 saves on 47 shots to lead the Bears past the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs 3-1 before 957 fans Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
It was the first of two "Pink in the Rink" games as the Bears wore pink uniforms and auctioned them off during intermissions to raise money for cancer research.
No player embraced the theme more than Benton.
"We haven't won a game with our pink jerseys yet and I really wanted to be the first to do that," he said. "It means a lot to me. I know family who has had cancer, passed from cancer, so I really wanted to win this one for them, and just for anybody else who has had cancer. It's a special cause."
A night later, before 856 fans, the Bears came from two goals behind in the third period to force overtime with a 5-5 tie. After a scoreless extra period in which Kenai River managed six shots and was on the power play once, the Ice Dogs prevailed in a shootout, 3-0.
Although the Bears lost 6-5, they earned another point in addition to the two from Friday's win to bolster their total to 49 with a record of 22-18-5. Three points in two games against the first-place team is a huge accomplishment for Kenai River, which is trying to hold off the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League West Division standings.
The Bears, who trail the third-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild by four points, hold a nine-point edge over the Rage, winners of five of six.
Fairbanks, meanwhile, improves to 28-12-2 for 58 points, holding a three-point lead over the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer for the division's top spot.
"However we get points, we'll take them," Kenai River coach Oliver David said. "This is the time for winning and we got some points, so it's good."
On Friday, there was nobody on the ice as special as Benton.
He helped the Bears kill five power plays and finished with a save percentage of 97.8 percent, tallying his highest save total of the campaign.
The second-year goalie, who made 16 saves and earned a shutout in a season-opening win against the Avalanche about four months ago, called it his strongest effort of the season.
Prior to Friday's game, Benton hadn't made more than 36 saves in a game this year. His record as Kenai River's starting goalie in 2010-11 is 10-9-2.
"This was probably my best," he said of the performance, comparing it to the shutout against Alaska. "This definitely trumps it."
What made the showing most impressive was that it came against the first-place Ice Dogs, the league's highest-scoring team with 177 goals.
Fairbanks managed 16 more shots than the Bears and were on the power play five times compared to Kenai River's three.
Brad Duwe gave the Bears a 1-0 lead midway through the first period when he angled a shot high into the corner of the net from a tough angle on the right wing, tucking the puck past the right glove of goalie Joe Phillippi.
It was one of nine shots during the period on a night when Kenai River shot 31 times compared to Fairbanks' 47. Brett Lubanski, who has a team-high 36 assists, earned the assist.
Fairbanks' lone score came with 7:18 remaining in the second.
After Benton made a kick save with his left skate on a Sean O'Rourke attempt during an exchange in which the Ice Dogs pelted Benton with four shots in about 30 seconds, Alexander Jensen found the back of the net.
O'Rourke and Jason Nash were credited with assists.
That was all the Ice Dogs would manage.
"They are a really fast team. They were coming down the ice fast," Benton said. "My defensemen were really great about clearing the puck out. I had the first shot and after that they usually threw it to the boards or got it out of the zone."
Chris Rial scored the game-winner at the 15:40 mark of the third, taking a spot-on pass from Lubanski in front of the net and snapping a shot past Phillippi. Jesse Ramsey got the assist as well.
The Ice Dogs managed 16 shots in the final period and hit the post twice inside the final three minutes.
An empty-net goal by Lubanski with less than a second remaining gave the Bears a two-goal advantage, but the game was closer than the final score.
"It's a huge win. We were very fortunate to win tonight," David said. "They are the stiffest competition we play against. They pose numerous threats."
David praised Benton's work, saying the goalie bailed out the squad when it had defensive breakdowns in the first period and throughout the contest.
It was the goalie's second win in as many starts.
"Josh Benton played exceptionally well, held us in there when we had some defensive lapses," David said. "That's his personal best in some time. We simply were fortunate that Josh played exceptional to keep us in the game."
Lubanski tallied the goal to send the game to overtime Saturday, finishing in assist from Beck with the Bears on the power play at the 1:20 mark of the third. It was the second goal of the period for the Bears, who peppered Phillippi with 26 shots over the final 20 minutes. Kenai River posted 57 shots for the game -- Fairbanks had 26 -- and none was bigger than Lubanski's.
"He's been on fire," David said of the captain, who has 16 goals and is ranked in the top in the league in assists.
In the shootout, Phillippi was perfect. He stopped shots from Beck, Alex Frere and Sean Muller, and the Ice Dogs got goals from Alec Hajdukovich, Jarred Linnell and Tayler Munson to earn the win and pick up two points.
Kenai River and Fairbanks begin another two-game set Friday at Fairbanks. The Ice Dogs are 14-4-0 on home ice, while the Bears are 11-9-3 away from the sports center.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 1
Fairbanks 0 1 0 --1
Kenai River 1 0 2 --3
First period -- 1. Kenai River, Duwe (unassisted), 9:50. Penalties -- Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period -- 2. Fairbanks, Jensen (O'Rourke, Nash), 12:42. Penalties -- Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 3. Kenai River, Rial (Lubanski, Ramsey), 4:20; 4. Kenai River, Lubanski (Thieda, Thompson), 20:00. Penalties -- Fairbanks none; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal -- Fairbanks (15-16-16--47); Kenai River (9-14-8--31).
Goalies -- Fairbanks, Phillippi (30 shots, 28 saves); Kenai River, Benton (47 shots, 46 saves).
Power plays -- Fairbanks 0 for 5; Kenai River 0 for 3.
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 5
(Shootout -- Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 0)
Fairbanks 2 2 1 0 --6
Kenai River 3 0 2 0 --5
First period -- 1. Kenai River, Muller (unassisted), 1:04; 2. Kenai River, Lubanski (Ramsey, Duwe), pp, 2:03; 3. Fairbanks, Jensen (Osborn, Levin), 11:43; 4. Kenai River, Capozza (Stenehjem, Frere), 14:36; 5. Fairbanks, Linnell (Munson), 16:17. Penalties -- Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period -- 6. Fairbanks, Jensen (Osborn, Hodge), 11:40; 7. Fairbanks, Osborn (Munson, Hajdukovich), pp, 15:06. Penalties -- Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Keani River 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 8. Fairbanks, Hajdukovich (Munson), 3:35; 9. Kenai River, Rial (Ramsey), 9:47; 10. Kenai River, Lubanski (Beck), pp, 18:40. Penalties -- Fairbanks 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Overtime -- No scoring. Penalties -- Fairbanks 1 for 2:00. Kenai River none.
Shootout scoring -- Fairbanks -- Hajdukovich, Linnell, Munson; Kenai River none.
Shots on goal -- Fairbanks (11-12-3-0--26); Kenai River (12-13-26-6--57).
Goalies -- Fairbanks, Phillippi (57 shots, 52 saves); Kenai River, Dahlstrom (26 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays -- Fairbanks 1 for 4; Kenai River 2 for 7.
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