It took 58 minutes and 25 seconds for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs to break open a scoreless game Tuesday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, but the wait was worth it.
The Ice Dogs scored the first and only goal of the game just 1:35 from the end to sneak away with a crucial 1-0 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears, leapfrogging Fairbanks (16-22-2-1) into the fourth and final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. The Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill sat one point ahead of the Dogs entering Thursday, but did not play. The Brown Bears (10-28-2-0) fell to 13 points outside of playoff contention.
After controlling much of the action in the first 58 minutes of the game, the Ice Dogs finally struck netting with a crash on the Bears goalie Colt Hanks. The first shot by Marc Sullivan appeared to score at first, and Sullivan skated with his gloves raised high for a few seconds, but the referees did not call a goal until Robert Blueger put away a rebound to make it official.
“It’s almost like a buzzer-beater in hockey,” said Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart. “It’s a long (1:35), trying to protect that lead, but we found a way tonight.”
Prior to the goal, the Bears struggled with possession and penalties, amassing 12 minutes of penalties while Fairbanks managed to largely stay out of the box, making for a tough battle for the home team.
“It was a joke,” said an irate Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton. “I mean, really?”
The majority of Worlton’s frustration was aimed at a Fairbanks penalty issued against defenseman Nolan Schaeffer, who was charged with an interference call on Bears skater Jonathan Marzec at mid-ice with 4:39 to go in the game.
The penalty put the Bears on the power play, but the puck was dropped for the faceoff in Kenai River’s zone, leaving Worlton searching for an answer.
“It’s weird, it’s really weird,” Worlton continued. “They get a penalty, and the faceoff somehow ends up on our side, when a penalty means an automatic faceoff in their zone.”
The response to Worlton’s question was that an icing call was made simultaneously with the interference call on Schaeffer.
Stewart said he believed Schaeffer was first to the puck, which would have explained the faceoff taking place in Kenai River’s zone.
“Obviously, if that’s the case, the puck comes outside the zone unless it’s deemed the interference took away from their player being able to track it down first,” Stewart said. “At that point you’re just preparing for the penalty kill ahead.”
While Worlton did not have anything positive to say about the play of his skaters, he praised the efforts of starting goalie Robbie Goor, who had a 25-save shutout going through the first 40 minutes of action.
Bears goaltender Hanks was credited with the loss in goal with only one period of play. Hanks replaced Goor between the pipes between the second and third periods. Worlton said he had to make the change after Goor suffered a lower body injury.
“Robbie was fantastic, he was the only reason we were in the game,” Worlton said.
Josh Benson had the complete-game shutout to earn the win in goal for Fairbanks, which tied the season series Alaska Ravn Cup at three wins apiece between the two teams.
In the first two periods, the Bears found it difficult to stay out of the sin bin. Kenai River held strong, though, on each kill, and even saw a golden opportunity to score go wasted late in the second on a two-on-one rush. A high sticking call late in the period on Tyler Rock put the Bears on a four-minute kill, but two minutes of that was nullified when the Dogs were called for too many men on the ice.
The Brown Bears and Ice Dogs will resume the three-game series tonight and Saturday night with a scheduled puck drop at 7:30 p.m., and Worlton said he expects better execution from his team.
“This is only one game, but if we don’t play better, we won’t be going anywhere,” he said.
Ice Dogs 1, Brown Bears 0
Fairbanks 0 0 1 — 1
Kenai River 0 0 0 — 0
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — no scoring. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 10:00.
Third period — 1. Fairbanks, Blueger (Sullivan, Eriksson), 18:25. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 18-7-1—26; Kenai River 9-4-0—13.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Benson (13 shots, 13 saves); Kenai River, Goor (25 shots, 25 saves), Hanks (8 shots, 7 saves).