The Kenai River Brown Bears' pursuit of an elusive first playoff victory will continue for at least another season.
Hosting a postseason game for the first time since 2009, the Bears were eliminated from the 2011 North American Hockey League playoffs in a 7-2 loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Game 3 of the first round before 1,033 fans Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Fairbanks, which won the NAHL West division, swept Kenai River by a combined score of 18-4 and advances to face the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the divisional finals.
"Our season goal was to make the playoffs and that's what we did. It's a big success, a big step in the right direction for the program," Kenai River captain Brett Lubanski said. "But, obviously, it's really disappointing to get swept and not be able to make it a good series for our home crowd."
After falling behind early and getting blown out in Games 1 and 2 by scores of 5-1 and 6-1, respectively, the Bears played with energy and aggression through 20 minutes Friday.
They peppered Fairbanks goaltender Joe Phillippi with 21 shots in the first period, taking a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the contest on a Kyle Keenan goal.
Fairbanks got the equalizer, but Bobby Murphy quickly put the Bears up 2-1 midway through the period.
That would be their final goal in a game that unraveled quickly. The teams entered the second knotted at 2.
"We should have had more than two goals on the board and they should have had less than two goals on the board," Kenai River coach Oliver David said of the first period, when the Bears resembled the team that earned a 4-1-1 home record against the Ice Dogs during the regular season at the sports center. "I don't say 'should have' as in the cliche 'shoulda-woulda-coulda.' We really should have had four goals ˜ point-blank, empty-net, right there on the doorstep."
Instead, Alexander Jensen notched a hat trick in the second period, scoring three times in a span of 16 minutes to turn a tie game into a 5-2 Ice Dogs edge.
Phillippi was brilliant for the third time in as many games, shutting the Bears out over the final 40 minutes, earning 44 saves on 46 shots and killing eight power plays in nine tries.
He was in position for saves all evening. It didn't matter how many players were on the ice.
The 20-year-old allowed just four goals in three games this series, a year after leading the Ice Dogs to the Robertson Cup final.
"He played extremely well," Fairbanks coach Josh Hauge said. "He's very talented and he plays bigger than he is and he just finds a way to make saves.
"He's a big-time, big-game goalie. Whenever the chips are down, he's always there. That's his biggest attribute. He's just been amazing in big games."
Kenai River, meanwhile, didn't get the dominant goaltending it needed to have a chance against the league's highest-scoring club.
Mathias Dahlstrom received the start after a shaky Game 1 and again struggled, allowing four goals on 16 shots in 33 minutes. He was swapped out in the second period for Josh Benton, the Game 2 starter, who allowed three goals over the final 27 minutes.
The Ice Dogs averaged six goals a game in the series and were 3-of-6 on the power play Friday.
"We didn't want to give them any hope," Hauge said. "It just makes things easier to take care of it right away."
Zach Vierling scored two goals for the Ice Dogs, while Charlie Thauwald and Gabe Levin added one apiece. Levin, JT Osborn and Jack Callahan each had two assists for Fairbanks, which was outshot 46-32.
The Bears had their chances in the second and third periods, but couldn't convert. They had a five-minute power play in the second after John Stampohar was ejected for kneeing, yet came away empty handed.
There were multiple instances in the third when Kenai River played with at least a one-man advantage, and for a 36-second stint, they had a two-man advantage.
None of it yielded points.
"When you don't capitalize, you start veering away from what the plan is," David said. "You start improvising because you think the plan isn't working, but it doesn't mean it isn't working. There's a great goalie there, a great goalie, and you have to stick with it and not veer off.
"It's like school, there's subject matter and then you're tested on it. The game is the test. We did our homework and then we started pulling stuff out of thin air and making stuff up. It doesn't add up."
The frustration boiled over late in a third period. The Bears were called for 60 minutes worth of infractions and had two players ejected.
Sean Muller was sent off the ice early in the period for obscene language after he was called for a cross-checking infraction.
Then, in the dying minutes, former Fairbanks defenseman Joe Blake committed 22 minutes worth of infractions during a heated exchange with his former team that ended with Blake making an obscene gesture toward his former squad's bench.
The final horn sounded less than two minutes later, and the Bears season came to a disappointing close.
"It sucks," Benton said. "We just gotta work harder and come back next year."
Ice Dogs 7, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 2 3 2 --7
Kenai River 2 0 0 --2
First period -- 1. Kenai River, Keenan (Ramsey, Fisher), 1:38; 2. Fairbanks, Vierling (Voigt, Osborn), pp, 11:43; 3. Kenai River, Murphy (Thompson, Stenehjem), pp, 13:55; 4. Fairbanks, Thauwald (Levin, Munson), pp, 17:39. Penalties -- Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period -- 5. Fairbanks, Jensen (Carlston, Callahan), 1:04; 6. Fairbanks, Jensen (Hodge), 12:59; 7. Fairbanks, Jensen (Levin, Callahan), 17:25. Penalties -- Fairbanks 2 for 15:00.
Third period -- 8. Fairbanks, Levin (Osborn, Jensen), 6:25; 9. Fairbanks, Vierling (Osborn, Callahan), pp, 9:28. Penalties -- Fairbanks 4 for 8:00; Kenai River 10 for 60:00.
Shots on goal -- Fairbanks (7-10-15--32); Kenai River (21-15-10--46).
Goalies -- Fairbanks, Phillippi (46 shots, 44 saves); Kenai River, Dahlstrom (16 shots, 12 saves), Benton (16 shots, 13 saves).
Power plays -- Fairbanks 3 of 6; Kenai River 1 of 9.
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