Fairbanks forward Caleb Harrison shoots and scores the winning goal on Kenai River goaltender Matt Wichorek in the early moments of the third period on Sunday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Photo by Matthew Carroll
Mired in a seven-game home losing streak, the latest a 2-1 setback to visiting Fairbanks on Sunday afternoon at the Soldotna Sports Center, Kenai River's primary objective over the final six games is to close the first season in franchise history on a positive note.
Topping the Ice Dogs for the first time this year would go a long way toward that.
And with four games remaining against their intrastate rival, each of them taking place at Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, the Brown Bears literally have them exactly where they want them.
While Kenai River has just two wins in 24 games away from home, the Ice Dogs are a pedestrian 9-9-2 on their own ice, compared to a mesmerizing 22-5-1 on the road.
"We'd love to have a win against Fairbanks," said Kenai River coach Mike Flanagan. "I guess the good news is that we're going to go on the road, where we haven't played well, but Fairbanks has a better road record than they do a home record. It could work in our favor."
Having not emerged victorious away from the Sports Center since a 4-3 decision over the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla on Dec. 21, 2007, Flanagan is all too familiar with the pitfalls of playing in front of a different crowd.
"I don't know how they do it, but they play well on the road and that's the key to winning. You can win all the home games you want, but if you can't win on the road, you can't win in the playoffs," he explained. "They can do that. They've played well on the road. It's a credit to them, I guess. They come to play hard. It doesn't matter if they're at home or if they're in the Lower 48 or if they're down in Wasilla or the peninsula, they play hard on the road. They're a tough team to beat."
Kenai River (10-34-8) has experienced that firsthand.
Following a 4-1 setback to Fairbanks (31-14-3) on Saturday, the Brown Bears fell to 0-8 against the Ice Dogs this season when Caleb Harrison beat Kenai River goaltender Matt Wichorek for the game-winning goal just 1:18 into the third period on Sunday.
"It was a controlled breakout and they weren't really pressing and we just fumbled the pass and we just didn't execute. That's what it boiled down to was not executing on basically a set play," Flanagan said of Harrison's tally. "That hurt. ... It took the wind out a little bit, for sure."
The Brown Bears never regained the fight they'd shown earlier in the contest and suffered their 14th one-goal loss of the season, while the Ice Dogs captured their 14th win in their last 15 road games.
"It's the team that we have. We go up and we go down and it's just hard for us to play at a high level for 60 minutes," Flanagan said. "But our guys work hard. At the end of the day, that's what our team is all about, is working hard. We never give up.
"It's very disheartening but it's the way it goes."
After falling behind 1-0 only 7:11 into the game when Jon Waggoner beat Wichorek, who turned away 39-of-41 shots, Kenai River showcased perhaps it's most prolific power play of the season.
With 9:29 to play in the opening frame, the Brown Bears fired five shots on net, three from forward Adam Krefski, and never allowed the rubber to vacate Fairbanks' zone. Continuously shifting the puck around the outskirts of the defense, Krefski finally rifled another slapper at Ice Dogs netminder Cody Reichard, who made the initial save before Kenai Central graduate Jed McGlasson poked home his eighth goal of the season, knotting the game at one with 7:56 remaining in the period.
"It was good to see the guys move the puck a little bit. We've obviously struggled with the power play all season long but it was good (Sunday)," Flanagan said. "It was good for the guys. We work on it, we work on it, but we have to work with what we have and they had some success with it (Sunday). So, it's good for them."
Any momentum the Brown Bears collected in the first was quickly dispelled in the second as Fairbanks outshot Kenai River, 21-7, and could have easily run away with the game had Wichorek not stood tall, denying 20 shots in the period, including an unanswered 11-shot flurry in a nine-minute span.
Flanagan said a rough period such as that could either help or hurt a team, depending on how they view it.
"One side of that coin is, 'Oh geez. We didn't play very well that period, but we're still in it ...' But then at other times, we have to sort of feel what the pulse of the team is because the other side of the coin would be like, 'Wow. We just got dominated that period. I don't even want to go out there anymore,'" he said. "But these past two games with Fairbanks when we've had that lull, the guys have been ready to go in the next period.
"Again, I think they just recognize that, 'Yeah, maybe we didn't play very well for that particular 20 minutes, but let's go out and give it our best shot in the next 20.' And they've always done that."
Now they turn their attention to stealing a win from a team fighting for the South Division's second playoff berth.
And it won't be easy on Friday or Saturday, even if, for some odd reason, the Ice Dogs do play worse at home.
"We've played them up there earlier and they have a good crowd. It's a hostile environment. They rise to the occasion at home as well," he said. "It will be tough to get a win against them. It really will, because they want to be gearing up for their playoff run and try and finish strong on their end.
"If we can get a win up there, I think that'll be good for our guys," Flanagan added. "It really would be."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
ICE DOGS 2, BROWN BEARS 1
Fairbanks 1 0 1 2
Kenai River 1 0 0 1
First period 1. Fairbanks, Waggoner (Santana, McCabe), 7:13; 2. Kenai River, McGlasson (Krefski, Musselman), 12:22 (pp). Penalties Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Second period No scoring. Penalties Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period 3. Fairbanks, Harrison (unassisted). Penalties Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal Fairbanks 11-21-9 41; Kenai River 10-7-6 23.
Goalies Fairbanks, Reichard (23 shots-22 saves); Kenai River, Wichorek (41 shots-39 saves).
Power plays Fairbanks 0 for 1; Kenai River 1 for 2.
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