For consecutive weeks, the Kenai River Brown Bears fell victim to a weekend sweep by the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, but beneath the losing, improvements are being made.
Friday night, the Brown Bears lost 5-1 to the Ice Dogs, then returned Saturday to drop a 4-3 game at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
With the win, Fairbanks also clinched the Alaska Ravn Cup for a fifth straight year, extending its advantage in the season series to 7-3 with three games left.
Fairbanks improved to 20-22-2-1 overall and moved all the way up to third in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. Kenai River remains in last place in the Midwest, 20 points out of the playoffs with a 10-32-2-0 mark.
“You’re always thinking about it, but right now we’re trying to get out of the slump,” said Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton when asked about the team’s playoff chances. “We’re focused on getting better.”
After scoring three goals in their previous four games against Fairbanks, the Brown Bears notched three on Saturday night, a notable improvement, according to Worlton.
One of Kenai River’s recent acquisitions, forward Jack Vincent, scored Saturday with a third-period strike that tied the game up at 3-all. It was Vincent’s first goal with the Bears and second overall this year, which he began with the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets.
“He makes us better,” Worlton said. “He gives us more depth and more offensive punch.”
Worlton said Saturday’s loss wasn’t for lack of effort, but rather a few mistimed plays on Kenai River’s part and a few lucky bounces for Fairbanks.
Both of Fairbanks’ goals in the first period came on the power play, after Kenai River scored the opening goal with a rocket from Jake Friedman.
After Daniel Haider and Hunter Wendt put the Dogs ahead 2-1 with power play goals late in the first period, Friedman scored again for the Bears to tie the game up at 2 apiece.
“He’s a kid that’s getting better and better,” Worlton said about Friedman. “He’s another young kid that’s growing up right in front of our eyes.”
Fairbanks went ahead again early in the third period with a netter from Wendt, but Vincent slotted in his Kenai River debut goal with 14:39 left in the game to knot it up.
Unfortunately, Fairbanks’ Samuel Ruffin fished out the puck on a mishandled play by a Brown Bears player and raced down the ice to score the ultimate game-winner with 4:13 to go.
Colt Hanks made 27 saves in the loss between the pipes, while Fairbanks goalie Erik Gordon saved 22 of 25 shots in the win.
The Ice Dogs continued to suffocate the offense of the Bears on Friday, winning their fourth straight game against the Bears, taking a 5-1 decision . The Bears had a total of just three goals in those four losses to the Ice Dogs.
“It’s the same message we’ve been talking about for three or four weeks,” Worlton said. “We’re getting opportunities, but we’re not capitalizing on them and they are capitalizing on theirs.”
Samuel Ruffin had the lone goal of the first period to stake Fairbanks to a 1-0 lead.
The Bears drew even with 9 minutes, 18 seconds, left in the second period when Friedman scored on assists from Ryan Mezera and Vincent. But the even-strength goal came during a stretch where the Bears had three straight power plays, and Worlton said the missed opportunities would be costly.
“Our big Achilles’ heel right now is we had three power plays in a row and didn’t get a goal on one of them,” Worlton said. “We need power-play goals and we haven’t been getting them and we’re not winning.”
Marc Sullivan made it 2-1 Fairbanks heading into the third period, and it stayed 2-1 until 6:14 remained and Cayden Cahill scored. Tanner Schachle and Grayson Gavin would close with goals.
“We were pressing,” Worlton said. “When you start pressing and get away from what you are trying to do, bad things usually happen.”
After missing two games due to injury, Bears goalie Robbie Goor returned and made 38 saves. Ice Dogs goalie Josh Benson has been in net for all four victories against the Bears. He made 18 saves.
Ice Dogs 4, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 1 1 1 —3
Fairbanks 2 0 2 — 4
First period — 1. Kenai River, Friedman (Marzec, Monahan), 9:42; 2. Fairbanks, Haider (McPheters, Eriksson), pp, 16:09; 3. Fairbanks, Wendt (Orysiuk, Sullivan), pp, 17:20. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai River, Friedman (Monahan, Mezera), 7:17. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Fairbanks, Wendt (Cahill, Sullivan), 2:28; 6. Kenai River, Vincent (Marzec, Radetic), pp, 5:21; 7. Fairbanks, Ruffin (Kero, Schaeffer), 15:47. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 4:00; Fairbanks 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 10-6-9—25; Fairbanks 11-8-12—31.
Goalies — Kenai River, Hanks (31 shots, 27 saves); Fairbanks, Gordon (25 shots, 22 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 1 for 3, Fairbanks 2 for 4.
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 0 1 0 — 1
Fairbanks 1 1 3 — 5
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Ruffin (Mayhew, Kero), 15:50. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Friedman (Mezera, Vincent), 10:42; 3. Fairbanks, Sullivan (Haider, Eriksson), 15:53. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00; Fairbanks 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Cahill (Sullivan, Orysiuk), 13:46; 4. Fairbanks, Schachle (Vanska, Chilton), 16:38; 5. Fairbanks, Gavin (Haider, Eriksson), 17:59. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 4-9-6—19; Fairbanks 12-13-18—43.
Goalies — Kenai River, Goor (40 shots, 38 saves); Fairbanks, Benson (19 shots, 18 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Fairbanks 0 for 3.