The Fairbanks Ice Dogs kept pace in the race for home-ice advantage throughout the divisional playoffs with a 4-2 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Fairbanks improved to 38-15-4, plus 12-1 against Kenai River, and is tied with the Minnesota Wilderness atop the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with 80 points. The Ice Dogs have three games left, while the Wilderness have four.
The Brown Bears dropped to 15-40-2 and into the bottom of the league standings.
Despite the vastly different records, the game was relatively even with the Bears taking a 2-1 lead into the final period and outshooting Fairbanks 36-34.
“I thought we controlled the second period and it was even the other two,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said.
But as has been the case all season, the Bears could not count on fortunate bounces of the puck in the final five minutes of a tight game.
With the game tied at 2 and 3 minutes, 13 seconds, left in the game, Jesper Ohrvall got the puck outside the faceoff circle and shot into heavy traffic. The puck found its way through sticks and skates and through the legs of Kenai goalie Evan Hauser for a goal.
“It was an unlucky goal,” Beauparlant said. “I think our goaltending has been excellent since early February.
“You can’t fault Evan. He played a great game.”
The Wilderness had already won as the Ice Dogs went into the final period trailing, but Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart said he did not know the Minnesota result until after the game.
But Stewart is happy with the way his team responded to getting outplayed in the second period.
“Hopefully, it’s the culture we try and instill in the players,” said Stewart, who was particularly happy with the play of Josef Ingman, Todd Burgess and Jacob Hetz. “They didn’t like what was happening and did something about it.
“That wasn’t coaching in the third period. That was the players.”
Beauparlant was not happy with two third-period penalties against the Bears that he said helped the Ice Dogs build momentum.
The Bears killed off a holding call on Jason Lem, but a trip on Gustav Berglund led to a goal.
“I didn’t think those calls were warranted,” Beauparlant said.
Berglund went in the box with 11:46 left in the game, and Chandler Madry found Burgess wide open in the slot for the equalizer at the 10:43 mark.
That set up Ohrvall’s winner and Ethan Somoza’s clinching empty-netter.
“We competed for 60 minutes,” Beauparlant said. “We didn’t have any lulls. I thought we deserved to get two points, or at least one.”
Fairbanks took a 1-0 lead in the first period on a Mitchell Baumann strike, but Kenai River stormed back in the second period, outshooting Fairbanks 18-8.
“The second period was not very good,” Stewart said. “I thought Kenai took it to us from start to finish.”
On the power play with 8:25 left in the period, Nick Klishko found Alex Jackstadt, who took an artful route to the net before dumping to Matt Rudin for a 1-all game.
After a goal was called off with 5:31 left in the period due to a high stick, the Bears continued to press the attack.
With 3:12 showing, Rudin found Colton Fletcher in the slot. Fletcher’s bid was stopped by Fairbanks netminder Patrick Munson, but Sam Carlson was right there for the rebound goal.
Beauparlant said he is proud of the team for the fight it showed despite being out of the playoff picture. He said the defensemen had a particularly solid night.
The effort was driven home when Jack Gessert took a puck to the helmet in the second period that gashed his ear. Gessert went to the hospital but was told he couldn’t be stitched up for an hour, so he returned to play the third period.
“They continue to show the professionalism that is required of them at this level,” Beauparlant said of his squad. “I thought they worked hard all week at practice and went out and executed what we worked on.”
The coach also said it was great to see 709 fans still coming out to support the Bears and honor the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association U-14 Tier II girls team that won the Pacific District.
“It’s great to see everybody rally around the teams,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears and Ice Dogs play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the sports complex. The KPHA Squirt Minor team that won the Alaska State Hockey Association State Tournament will be honored after the second period.
Ice Dogs 4, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 1 0 3 —4
Kenai River 0 2 0 —2
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Baumann (Cahill, R. Gorowsky), 6:32. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Rudin (Jackstadt, Klishko), pp, 11:35; 3. Kenai River, Carlson (Fletcher, Rudin), 16:48. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Burgess (Madry), 9:17; 5. Fairbanks, Ohrvall (H. Gorowsky, Teets), 16:47; 6. Fairbanks, Somoza (Burgess, Madry), 19:40. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 17:00; Kenai River 4 for 19:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 11-8-15—34; Kenai River 10-18-8—36.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Munson (36 shots, 34 saves); Kenai River, Hauser (33 shots, 30 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 3; Kenai River 1 for 2.