Points may not mean anything to the Kenai River Brown Bears as far as the North American Hockey League playoff picture is concerned, but as far as building the franchise back up, they mean everything.
In a battle between the best and the worst in the league, the Brown Bears picked up a point Thursday night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ice Dogs, leaving Kenai River with a 4-49-5 season record which tied the league mark for losses in a single season.
The NAHL loss record in a 60-game season is 54, accomplished by the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes which went 6-51-3 during the 2012-13 campaign.
Meanwhile, the Ice Dogs continued their spectacular season by increasing their overall record to 47-8-3, giving Fairbanks 97 points for the year. Last year, the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets set the NAHL mark with 100 points, which they accomplished with a 49-9-2 season. If Fairbanks wins Friday and Saturday, they will take the record with 101 points.
The Ice Dogs bolstered their season total against the Bears in the Ravn Alaska Cup to 14-0-0. Against Fairbanks, Kenai River is 0-13-1 this year.
For Kenai River, Thursday night represented the next step in rebuilding a franchise that has fallen on hard times. The overtime loss gives Kenai River four points in four games with a 1-1-2 record. The Bears had previously lost 17 straight before a 3-2 overtime victory on March 19 over the New Jersey Titans, who were leading the East Division at the time.
“Everything matters,” said Bears head coach Jeff Worlton. “We’re trying to build for the future and set the tone that we’re not the same old Brown Bears.”
Alex Mehnert slotted in the game-winner for Fairbanks with four seconds left in the five-minute overtime period.
The Brown Bears had to scramble in regulation to overcome a two-goal deficit in the final 90 seconds and force the extra period of play. Joey Sardina scored with 1 minute, 27 seconds, remaining in the third period to close the gap to 2-1, and Worlton consequently pulled goalie Nick Nast in favor of an extra attacker.
Nast finished with 40 saves on 43 shots.
In the dying seconds, Kenai River crashed the net with the puck, and Gunnar Goodmanson managed to slip it in with four-tenths of a second on the clock.
“He got the puck, took it to the net, and if you do that, good things happen,” Worlton said.
In overtime, Fairbanks controlled the pace by outshooting Kenai River 7-0.
“We were trying to win,” Worlton said of the game plan. “It felt good, the energy was high, we took a penalty and killed it off, and we finished last 30 seconds three-on-three until they scored.”
The Bears held the Ice Dogs scoreless in the opening 20 minutes, but allowed a pair of goals in the second period from Ryan Kero and Evan Somoza, the latter coming on a power play.
Worlton praised the overall team effort and said the valuable point was due to the Bears’ determinedness.
“It’s bittersweet,” Worlton said. “Obviously there’s a level of disappointment, the season has been disappointing, but they’re a resilient bunch of men, and they’re not quitting.”
The Brown Bears and Ice Dogs continue the three-game weekend finale tonight and Saturday with a 7:30 p.m. puck drop.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2, OT
Kenai River 0 0 2 0 —2
Fairbanks 0 2 0 1 —3
1st period — no scoring. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — 1. Fairbanks, Kero (Cahill, Stirtzinger), 4:51; 2. Fairbanks, Somoza (Kero, Kleven), pp, 15:08. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 14:00; Kenai River 4 for 8:00.
3rd period — 3. Kenai River, Sardina (Goodmanson, Taormina), 18:33; 4. Kenai River, Goodmanson (Appleton, Klishko), ea, 19:59. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 5. Fairbanks, Mehnert (Gorowsky, Somoza), 4:56. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Goalies — Kenai River, Nast (43 shots, 40 saves); Fairbanks, Nieto (26 shots, 24 saves).
Shots on goal — Kenai River 9-7-10-0—26; Fairbanks 11-17-8-7—43.
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Fairbanks 1 for 6.