The Kenai River Brown Bears are rolling, even with nothing to play for.
After staging a wild three-goal rally in the final minutes of Thursday’s North American Hockey League contest, the Brown Bears toppled the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for a second consecutive night Friday at the Big Dipper Arena, winning with a much more comfortable 5-2 score.
However, the Bears were unable to finish their season on a win streak Saturday as Fairbanks won 4-3 in a shootout.
Kenai River finished the year with an 18-38-1-3 record, which pushed them ahead of the Topeka (Kansas) RoadRunners for last place in the league. Topeka sits with 38 points and Kenai River has 39, but the RoadRunners can still knock the Bears to last as they have three games left on their schedule.
The Bears had long since been knocked out of playoff contention while the Ice Dogs had already clinched the regular season NAHL title as the team with the best overall record at 45-8-4-3.
But it doesn’t mean Kenai River — which could bring back as many as 20 of its current 23 players next season — is willing to go quietly into the night.
“We’re in a good place as a team,” said Bears head coach Josh Petrich. “I think we’re starting to buy in and do stuff the right way. We’re playing as a group. Each guy is playing for the guy on his left and right.
“It’s been exciting, it’s been fun.”
Friday’s win was the third in a row for the Bears and second of this final three-game weekend series against the Ice Dogs. The current three-game win streak comes after the team lost 10 straight.
The weekend also wrapped up the Ravn Cup for the Ice Dogs, which won the season series 7-5 over the Bears. The Ice Dogs had already technically clinched the title based on two overtime wins.
“It gives our guys a lot of confidence heading into next year,” Petrich continued. “The momentum, it’s going to be a different team with different guys, but to the core group that we have, it gives us a lot of momentum.”
Swedish winger Filip Karlsson had a big weekend, notching a hat trick Friday, the first of his NAHL career and his first multi-goal game this season, then scoring twice more Saturday. In Friday’s contest, Karlsson put the Bears ahead for good with a scoring strike with 2:30 left in the second period, then capped his night with his third goal 4:23 into the third.
“Filip had an absolute man’s effort tonight,” Petrich said Friday. “All his goal were hard-working goals. They weren’t pretty.”
In Saturday’s loss, the two teams played to a 3-all tie at the end of regulation.
After a scoreless overtime period, Kenai River’s Joseph Allegrini and Zach Krajnik both missed shootout shots, while Luke Mobley struck first for Fairbanks with a backhanded shot, and Jack Johnston buried the game winner to send Fairbanks off to the playoffs.
“When you get into a shootout, it’s a pick ‘em,” Petrich said. “But I think it was a hell of a hockey game. It was two teams battling to the very end.”
Prior to the late drama, Daniel Haider recorded his 15th goal of the season to put the Ice Dogs on top first 3:02 into the game. The scoring strike was followed by Bears defenseman Joe Rosa dropping the gloves with Fairbanks captain Luke Orysiuk, causing a five-minute Bears major and Rosa’s ejection.
Karlsson knotted things up with just 2.4 seconds left in the period, a big swing of momentum after the Bears killed off Rosa’s five-minute penalty.
In the second period, Fairbanks’ Hunter Wendt snuck the puck by Kenai River goalie Kevin Lake’s glove from the low slot, but Gil Garcia notched his 23rd goal of the season 2:03 later to tie it back up.
Erkka Vanska put Fairbanks ahead yet again on the power play later in the period, but Karlsson answered with his own power play shot with 1:44 left in the period to send the teams to the locker room tied at 3 apiece.
After a scoreless third period in which the Ice Dogs outshot the Bears 16-8 and Kenai’s Carter Wade and Fairbanks’ Caleb Hite brawled, the game went to overtime. Fairbanks finished regulation with a massive 51-23 shots on goal advantage.
Lake finished the night with 50 saves on 53 shots between the pipes for the Bears, earning the praise of Petrich.
Petrich said Thursday’s series opener, a 4-3 overtime victory, was one mostly controlled by Fairbanks. The Ice Dogs led 3-0 with four minutes left in regulation before the Bears scrambled with three goals in a 1:40 span to force overtime. It took 46 seconds for Michael Spethmann to send Kenai River to victory.
Friday’s win was different, Petrich said, as the Bears flaunted a more complete effort.
Kenai River fell into a 2-1 hole in the first period, partly due to three penalties the Bears had to kill off, Petrich said. Luke Orysiuk and Hunter Wendt each scored for Fairbanks, which outshot the Bears 18-7 in the opening frame.
From there on, however, the Bears played the role of an experienced team. Emils Ezitis and Karlsson both scored second-period goals that lifted Kenai River to a 3-2 lead after two periods, Ezitis tying it up with eight minutes left in the frame and Karlsson putting the Bears ahead with 2:30 to go.
In the final two periods, the Bears outshot the Ice Dogs 19-12.
“It’s just stay true to the process, keep going and believe in yourself, and you’ll be rewarded,” Petrich explained. “All five goals were scrappy and we had guys going to the net and doing good stuff.”
Defenseman Cam McDonald added an insurance goal in the third, just his second score of the year.
Bears goalie Gavin Enright settled down after giving up the two early goals and shone in the final two periods, warding off all 12 shots he faced and finishing with 28 saves total.
“The last two night’s are what we expected him to be this year,” Petrich said. “It’s exciting to get some confidence moving forward, and for him to come back and know he’s a stellar goalie.”
With most of the team expected to return, Petrich said the past two weekends, which saw Kenai River win three of five over Fairbanks, could not have come at a better time as the offseason approaches.
“It’s a privilege to coach this team, and we’re excited for what’s to come next season,” he said. “I think a lot of guys got invaluable experience and there were a lot of positives to come out it.”
Petrich also thanked the team sponsors, partners, fans, parents and billet families for supporting the organization in a year that many thought would never happen, after last year’s originally announced deactivation of the team spurred a grassroots effort to save the franchise.
“It’s really fun to be a part of, and the boys left everything on the ice this weekend,” Petrich said. “It’s a statement on how much character we have in that room.
“Brown Bear nation is alive and we’ve never been more thankful for that.”
Ice Dogs 4, Brown Bears 3, SO
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Haider (Schachle), 3:02; 2. Kenai River, Karlsson (Krajnik, McDonald), PP, 19:58. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 9:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 3. Fairbanks, Wendt (Murray), 8:26; 4. Kenai River, Garcia (Ezitis), 10:29; 5. Fairbanks, Vanska (Haider, Mayhew), PP, 13:44; 6. Kenai River, Karlsson (Krajnik, Guillemain), PP, 18:16.
Third period — no scoring. Penalties — Kenai River 4 for 19:00; Fairbanks 5 for 21:00.
Overtime — no scoring. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 9-6-8-1—24; Fairbanks 14-21-16-2—53.
Goalies — Kenai River, Lake (53 shots, 50 saves); Fairbanks, Benson (24 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 2 for 4; Fairbanks 1 for 4.
Brown Bears 5, Ice Dogs 2
Kenai River 1 2 2 —5
Fairbanks 2 0 0 —2
First period — 1. Kenai River, Karlsson (Klekotka, Rosa), 4:27; 2. Fairbanks, Orysiuk (Wendt, Hite), 13:20; 3. Fairbanks, Wendt (Hite, Stampohar), 19:22. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Ezitis (Garcia, Guillemain), 12:04; 5. Kenai River, Karlsson (Komuls, Scahill), 17:30. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Karlsson (Klekotka, Wade), 4:23; 7. Kenai River, McDonald (Ezitis, Garcia), 5:53. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Shots — Kenai River 7-9-10—26; Fairbanks 18-4-8—30.
Goalies — Kenai River, Enright (30 shots, 28 saves); Fairbanks, Neaton (26 shots, 21 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 4; Fairbanks 0 for 4.