Kenai River kept Fairbanks off the third-period scoreboard Friday night and managed the tying goal on a penalty shot with under a minute to play. The Brown Bears then netted the game-winner with 7.6 seconds left in overtime in capturing an inspirational 3-2 win over the Ice Dogs at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The two squads then squared off the in the rubber match of the three-game series on Saturday, with Fairbanks taking a 4-2 decision after scoring a pair of third-period goals.
Continually haunted by their struggling play in the third period this season, the Brown Bears welcomed the much-needed turnaround in the final frame Friday night, but it was Saturday's closing 20 minutes that most impressed coach Brent Agrusa.
"I felt Saturday was one of the best third periods we've played all year," the first-year coach said of the two-goal loss during which the Brown Bears outshot the Ice Dogs, 17-6, in the third. "We were all over them, we were getting quality shots ... we were a goal short, despite a game that I felt we certainly played well enough in the third to win."
He's now hoping his team can carry that momentum over to tonight's 7:30 p.m. game against the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla, the second-place team in the West Division who comes to town for a two-game series concluding Saturday at the same time.
But the Brown Bears' late-game problems can be traced to a pair of setbacks at Alaska two weeks ago.
Kenai River (5-7-1) owned a 3-1 lead after the first period on Oct. 17 before the Avalanche (6-2) scored once in the second, again in the third and then won, 4-3, in a shootout.
The next night was the same story, as the Brown Bears entered the third with a 3-2 lead and even stretched that to 4-2 early in the period. But Alaska netted four goals, three coming in the final eight minutes, in earning a 6-4 victory.
Following their past two improved performances, Agrusa sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
"We're coming out in the third period and we're outshooting teams ... we've just got to find a way to win those games, those tight games and those close games and we've got to do it consistently," he said. "We're getting there. I thought Friday was a good sign. We found a away to win that game. We're certainly farther ahead with it than we were a month ago."
Also coming along is the power play.
Kenai River -- 1-3 against Alaska this season and currently in third place in the West -- has scored a power-play goal in six straight games and 11 of its 13 games this year.
But scoring only 15.79 percent of the time with a man advantage, good enough for 10th in the 19-team North American Hockey League, isn't quite good enough. At least not yet.
The Brown Bears also sit ninth in the penalty kill department, protecting their net 84.62 percent of the time.
Again, not up to par, according to Agrusa.
"I've always looked at your special teams, if you're scoring more on the power play than on the penalty kill then you're doing your job," he said, adding, "I'd like to see our power play get into the 20s and the penalty kill into the 90s percentagewise.
"Right there if you get that into the 90s and 20s, that's a goal or two difference every night."
And they could use that, considering they've dropped four of their last five games by a combined six goals, one an empty-netter.
Also contributing to a lack of scoring is Kenai River's continuing frustration around the net, conversions that should be put home and aren't.
Agrusa, though, isn't the least bit concerned.
"It's not that we're not getting our chances, that's for sure," he said. "I've always been a believer if you're getting your chances, you don't worry because at some point those will go in. The only point you worry is if you're not getting your opportunities. That hasn't been the case for us. We've been getting an abundance of them.
"You look at the amount of shots we're getting a night ... just on shots alone you should be getting four goals a game," Agrusa added. "I think it's something we obviously need to improve on."
With the developing play of forward Jed McGlasson, who leads the team with 12 points, Kyle Clay (10 points) and Ryan Lemke, who scored the overtime goal against Fairbanks, the immediate future looks bright for this edition of the Brown Bears.
"Every weekend we've gotten a little closer and a little better at the things that we've done," Agrusa said. "Hopefully we'll break out of our shell this weekend and get it done."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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