After missing out on two chances to clinch a playoff berth with losses in Fairbanks on Friday and Saturday, the Kenai River Brown Bears are now left to hope the Minnesota Magicians can clinch them a spot in the postseason.
The Bears finish their regular season with a record of 28-24-8, currently good for fourth place in the North American Hockey League West Division.
But the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill are just one point behind the Bears and own the tiebreaker.
The Chill conclude their regular season by hosting the Minnesota Magicians at 2 p.m. ADT today. A win or an overtime loss for the Chill ends Kenai River’s season.
Coulee Region has lost six straight games, but is at home and is 7-4 this season against the Magicians.
“We don’t have any control over it,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “If we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs tomorrow evening we’ll get back on our horse and we’ll be fortunate to get a second breath of air.”
If there is one team that will be responsible for the nail-biting going on Sunday, it is the Ice Dogs. With the 5-1 loss Friday and the 7-3 loss Saturday, the Bears ended the season with just three wins in 16 tries against Fairbanks.
If Kenai River does make the playoffs, the first-round opponent will be the Ice Dogs.
The Bears had 10 points in seven games coming into the weekend series, but Fairbanks, which has clinched the league’s best record, responded before a pair of sellout crowds of 2,242 after yielding three points in two games to the Bears last weekend.
Saturday, Fairbanks jumped to a 3-0 lead with goals by Lonnie Clary and Ethan Somoza in the first period and a goal by Clary in the second period.
“We came out flat,” Beauparlant said. “The first couple of shifts were good, but that was it.”
With 16:54 left in the second period, Conor Deal made it 4-1 on assists from Zack Zulkanycz and Jacob Wolter, but just 21 seconds later Kyle Lee scored on a wraparound to chase goalie Kris Oldham, who had nine saves on 13 shots.
“It didn’t seem like Kris was fully focused, and he should have stopped the wraparound, especially after we score and made it 3-1 and had some momentum,” Beauparlant said. “At the same time, it was partly because we weren’t grasping that we have to play with more intensity.
“There’s five players in front of him, as well.”
The move sparked goals by Deal, assisted by Ben Campbell and Zulkanycz, and Davidson, assisted by Jack Gessert and RJ Salvato, to make it 4-3 with 5:48 left in the second.
Then Fairbanks got a power play on a call Beauparlant said he disagreed with. The Kenai River coach then said he felt the Bears should have gotten a power play on a play that resulted in a Duggie Lagrone goal with 58 seconds left in the second period.
“I thought all the momentum we felt we had was taken away by some questionable decisions,” Beauparlant said.
In the third, Fairbanks goalie Patrick Munson blanked the Bears and Jacob Hetz and Ross Olsson polished off the victory with late goals.
“In the third, we had our opportunities, we just didn’t capitalize,” Beauparlant said.
But the coach said the loss wasn’t as much about missed opportunities in the third or calls in the second as it was about the slow start.
“I’m proud of the last 40 minutes,” the coach said. “When you spot a team like Fairbanks two goals of three goals, especially on the road, it’s not easy to overcome.”
Before the game, Alec Butcher clinched the NAHL scoring title. He finished with 66 points on 24 goals and 42 assists, while Jay Dickman of the Austin (Minn.) Bruins had 64.
“He’d be the first to trade that for a playoff spot tomorrow,” Beauparlant said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for Alec, the organization and the 23 guys that helped him get there.
“I don’t think too many people said a Brown Bears player would win the scoring title with so many good players in the league this year. Kudos to Alec and the club for helping him reach that goal.”
Friday, Beauparlant said the Bears had the better of the chances early in the game, and not capitalizing came back to haunt them.
“We had chances,” Beauparlant said. “We had two power plays, two breakaways and a couple two-on-ones.
“If we capitalize on those, it’s a completely different story.”
Beauparlant said the momentum turned on a power-play goal by Brett Gervais with 9 minutes, 47 seconds, left in the first period.
The Kenai River coach said Fairbanks had the better of the chances from that point forward. Tayler Munson had the lone goal of the second period to put the Dogs up 2-0.
Beauparlant said Fairbanks goalie Kevin Aldridge had two big saves in a 3-on-2 rush late in the second period.
“That really could have changed the momentum going into the third,” Beauparlant said.
The Ice Dogs kept rolling with goals by Clary and Johnny Mueller in the first 1:15 of the third.
“That was the backbreaker,” Beauparlant said. “I give the guys credit. They didn’t fold like they did a month and a half ago.”
Nathan Colwell, on assists from Zulkanycz and Christian Luiten, scored with 15:47 left, but the second power-play goal of the game by Gervais sewed things up with 4:49 to play.
Beauparlant said Colwell came back with a good game after sitting last weekend.
“The consistency wasn’t there in the execution, the physical play and the compete level,” Beauparlant said, adding it was nice to see 15 to 20 people make the trip north to support the Bears. “When you don’t have that, a team like Fairbanks is going to capitalize when you give them the opportunities we gave them.”
Zach Quinn had 23 saves for the Bears, while Kevin Aldridge had 27 saves for Fairbanks.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 0 0 1 —1
Fairbanks 1 1 3 —5
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Gervais (Clary, Lagrone), pp, 10:13. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Munson (Burgess), 17:21. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Clary (Vedel, Gervais), 1:06; 4. Fairbanks, Mueller (Olsson), 1:15; 5. Kenai River, Colwell (Zulkanycz, Luiten), 4:13; 6. Fairbanks, Gervais (Vedel, Bushey), 15:11. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 7:00; Fairbanks 2 for 7:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 7-12-9—28; Fairbanks 7-13-8—28.
Goalies — Kenai River, Quinn (28 shots, 23 saves); Fairbanks, Aldridge (28 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Fairbanks 2 for 3.
Ice Dogs 7, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 0 3 0 —3
Fairbanks 2 3 2 —7
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Clary (Gervais, Vedel), 5:03; 2. Fairbanks, Somoza (Wolter), 16:02. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Fairbanks, Clary (Olsson, Rose), 2:02; 4. Kenai River, Deal (Zulkanycz, Wolter), 3:06; 5. Fairbanks, Lee (Somoza, Wolter), 3:27; 6. Kenai River, Deal (Campbell, Zulkanycz), 8:44; 7. Kenai River, Davidson (Gessert, Salvato), 14:12; 8. Fairbanks, Lagrone (Wolter, Gorowsky), 19:02. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 9. Fairbanks, Hetz (Olsson), 17:28; 10. Fairbanks, Olsson (Vedel, Hetz), en, 19:55.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 4-13-16—33; Fairbanks 11-13-8—32.
Goalies — Kenai River, Oldham (13 shots, 9 saves); Quinn (18 shots, 16 saves); Fairbanks, Munson (33 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Fairbanks 0 for 4.