In what may be their final weekend of play ever, the Kenai River Brown Bears opened a three-game road series Thursday night against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs with a 3-2 loss.
Stuck in last place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with a 12-44-2-0 record, the Brown Bears could only hope to end the season with a win out of spite over their northern rivals, who clinched a playoff spot with their seventh straight victory.
“We want to win,” said Bears head coach Jeff Worlton. “That’s our goal any time we play anybody.
“It’s nice (to play Fairbanks close), but a loss is still a loss.”
It was the 13th one-goal loss the Bears have suffered this year, leaving Worlton frustrated that the team has come so close so many times, but optimistic about the team’s ability to hang with opponents.
“Sometimes we run out of time before we do figure it out,” he said.
Down 3-1 in the third period, Jack Vincent scored for the Bears with just three seconds on the clock, but it proved to be too little, too late.
Fairbanks doubled up Kenai River on shot attempts, outshooting the Bears 32-16, including an 11-2 advantage in the opening period.
The Bears hold the second-worst penalty kill in the league, while Fairbanks’ power play unit is the fifth-best in the league.
The game’s first goal was notched in just that fashion, as the Ice Dogs took a power-play opportunity eight minutes into the contest. After a tripping call on Ryan Mezera put the Bears on their second kill of the night, it took 21 seconds for Benton Maass to score with help from Hampus Eriksson and Ryan Kero. Maass is fresh off a run with his Minnesota high school team.
“The slow start ended up coming back to bite us in the butt,” Worlton said. “But we played our style of game, and it was a one-goal game going into the third period.”
Hunter Wendt put the Dogs up two goals later in the period with a scoring strike.
Things tightened up in the second period with a goal from Preston Weeks, the first for the Soldotna product in the NAHL. A tripping call on Fairbanks put the Bears on the power play, and Weeks capitalized. The goal cut the Ice Dogs’ lead to 2-1 with 5:06 remaining in the frame.
Cayden Cahill slotted home an insurance goal 7:49 into the third period, but the Bears answered back in the dying moments of the game, which ultimately came too late. Vincent ripped a shot by Fairbanks tender Erik Gordon with three seconds left on the board, setting up a last-gasp effort by the Bears.
Worlton said his team won the draw at center ice on the ensuing puck drop, but the last few seconds weren’t enough to get a shot on goal.
“We won the draw, made a pass up the ice and weren’t able to make anything of it,” he said.
Colt Hanks stopped 29 shots in goal for the Bears, while Gordon finished with 14 saves on 16 shots for Fairbanks.
The two teams clash again tonight and Saturday with 7:30 p.m. puck drops.
At Big Dipper Ice Arena, Fairbanks
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 2
Kenai River 0 1 1 — 2
Fairbanks 2 0 1 — 3
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Maass (Eriksson, Mayhew), PP, 8:20; 2. Fairbanks, Wendt (Blueger, Cahill), 14:25. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Weeks, PP, 14:54. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Cahill (Wendt, Blueger), 7:49; 5. Kenai River, Vincent (Marzec, Lipe), 19:57. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 6:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 2-10-4—16; Fairbanks 11-10-11—32.
Goalies — Kenai River, Hanks (32 shots, 29 saves); Fairbanks, Gordon (16 shots, 14 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3; Fairbanks 1 for 4.