With less than 10 seconds remaining on a period-opening power play Friday night in a North American Hockey League first-round playoff game against Kenai River, Fairbanks goaltender Joseph Phillippi repeatedly slammed his stick on the ice, signaling to the rest of the Ice Dogs that their man advantage was coming to a close.
The reverberating sound, easily heard throughout the Soldotna Sports Center, also marked the end of the Brown Bears season.
Merely seconds after the power play concluded, Fairbanks forward Austin Block netted the second of his three goals less than a minute into the third period and Fairbanks held on for a 5-2 win in the third and final game of the first-round, best-of-five series.
"Killed off the whole penalty, then boom, they score," said first-year Kenai River coach Brent Agrusa. "Like I said, story of our season. But, you know, go back at her and start looking toward next year now."
In just their second season of existence, the Brown Bears improved upon their 12-win campaign from a year ago, compiling a 14-36-8 mark while qualifying for their first postseason after all four teams in the West Division advanced.
Half of their losses, however, were by a single goal, and eight occurred in overtime or a shootout, meaning it could have been Kenai River resting atop the division rather than Fairbanks, which closed the regular season at 38-12-8.
And while the Ice Dogs earned a 4-1 win in Game 1 on April 3 and followed that up with a dominating 7-1 victory the next night in nabbing a 2-0 series lead in Fairbanks, the scores again weren't indicative of how close Kenai River actually came to winning.
The Brown Bears, who closed the season with 17 straight losses, played 40 minutes of scoreless hockey in the series opener before Fairbanks got hot in the third, and then they scored just 53 seconds into the second game before allowing seven unanswered tallies.
"Tonight, in my opinion, Kenai probably deserved to win," said Fairbanks coach Josh Hauge, whose team outshot the Brown Bears, 38-35. "They were the better team, I thought. We just got timely goaltending and we got some breaks.
"This was a team I didn't want to play in the first round of the playoffs. They scare me," he added. "They are a good group, they're very talented ... so I'm grateful to be past them."
Agrusa believed the series could have tilted the other way.
"I thought we should have won Game 1 and I thought we should have won today," he laughed. "It would have been a huge win for us to win there. We could have won two games so far, but we didn't. Gotta score."
After the Brown Bears completely owned the first eight minutes of Friday's action but couldn't find the back of the net, a botched break put them in an early hole.
Scooping up the loose puck in their own end when Kenai River's pass through the neutral zone went long, the Ice Dogs quickly advanced the puck to the Brown Bears' blue line, where Michael Juola fed Block on a two-on-one before the forward beat Kenai River netminder Jimmy Hamby near the midway point of the first.
Not about to go quietly on their home ice, the Brown Bears literally rattled Phillippi with a laser to the facemask and followed that up five minutes later with the tying goal when captain Nick Simson stole the puck just outside the crease and found a wide-open Kevin Wentland, who one-timed it past a sprawling Phillippi with 2:49 to play in the first.
The momentum swung quickly back to Fairbanks, though, as Joesph Krause capitalized on a Kenai River turnover in sending the Ice Dogs into the first intermission with a 2-1 lead.
"It was nice for us, but we've got a pretty good group here," Hauge said. "When we go, we're a talented hockey team. It's just being consistent and that's where we lack sometimes."
A scoreless second period during which Kenai River failed to unleash a single shot on its first power play of the game appeared to set up a thrilling, do-or-die closing 20 minutes.
But Block quickly dispatched the thought of a comeback when he scored on the heels of a power play in handing his team a 3-1 edge only 50 seconds into the final frame.
"If they kill that off, we don't score there, Kenai probably takes the momentum from that. You never know what can happen," Hauge said. "We were back on our heels tonight, they were taking it to us a little bit. So, that was a huge goal for us."
In the end, it proved even larger.
Kenai River's Jake Musselman nearly made it a one-goal game when his slapper slammed off the post and Fairbanks again took advantage of the Brown Bears' misfortune when James Saintey poked in a rebound for a 4-1 cushion with 13:31 remaining.
Trying to prolong the season, Ryan Goodmanson lifted a rebound over Phillippi, who was on the ground, in trimming it to 4-2 and the Brown Bears nearly sliced it to one on a shorthanded, two-on-one break that slid just wide.
With Hamby on the bench and an extra attacker on the ice, Kenai River appeared to make it 4-3 when Wentland deflected a hard slap shot by TJ Poganski into the upper netting with 2:21 to play.
But when officials waved off the goal, calling it the result of a high stick, the Brown Bears' season was effectively over, and Block ensured that when he added an empty-netter with under 30 ticks remaining in helping the Ice Dogs advance into the second round.
"The high stick, disallowed goal, Musselman hitting the post, kind of the story of our season, isn't it?," Agrusa asked. "Outshooting teams, and once again I thought we outplayed them all night tonight. Story of our year.
"I guess it's probably right to finish the way that it did because it's the story of our season," he added. "There's a lot of nights we should have won a lot of games, we just hit posts or missed nets or got goals disallowed. It's just kind of our thing."
Kenai River's attention now shifts to next season, it's third as a member of the NAHL, when it has the opportunity to bring back 18 players, compared to the league average of around eight or nine, according to Agrusa.
"You look at Bismarck last year, they finished in last and this year they finished in first. Why? They brought a lot of guys back," he said. "This team will finally have that opportunity to do that and I think you'll see a lot better team here and a team that can make a run here next season.
"We built young and we knew that going in, but I think it was a good experience for our young guys and I think you'll see them come back -- guys are always better their second year," Agrusa added. "Hopefully we can get a couple top-end goal scorers to add to that. But I think you'll see a little maturity."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 2 0 3 --5
Kenai River 1 0 1 --2
First period -- 1. Fairbanks, Block (Juola, Waggoner), 9:30; 2. Kenai River, Wentland (Simson, Clay), 17:11; 3. Fairbanks, Krause (Larson, Feaval), 18:16. Penalties -- Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period -- No scoring. Penalties -- Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period -- 4. Fairbanks, Block (A. McCabe, Larson), 0:50; 5. Fairbanks, Saintey (Zierke, Schreiner), 6:29; 6. Kenai River, Goodmanson (Lemke, McGlasson), 10:21; 7. Fairbanks, Block (Pustin), 19:35 (empty net). Penalties -- None.
Shots on goal -- Fairbanks 12-10-16--38; Kenai River 14-10-11--35.
Goalies -- Fairbanks, Phillippi (35 shots, 33 saves); Kenai River, Hamby (37 shots, 33 saves).
Power plays -- Fairbanks 0 for 2; Kenai River 0 for 2.
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