The Fairbanks Ice Dogs swept a two-game series from the Kenai River Brown Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to open the North American Hockey League season for both squads.
Friday, the Bears lost 6-2, while Saturday Kenai River lost 7-3 after getting outscored 6-0 in the third period in front of 726.
Friday, three short-handed goals within five minutes of each other in the first period doomed the Brown Bears’ chances of winning their home opener in front of 801.
The opening game of the season can often be a little odd as teammates adjust to each other, but even in that context the three shorties that had the Dogs up 3-0 with 1 minute, 41 seconds, left in the first period stood out.
“Special teams are always a work in progress, but I wouldn’t have expected three short-handed goals unanswered to start the game,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that at any level.”
First games of the season give an indication of where work is needed. With both teams finishing 0 for 5 on the power play, it wasn’t hard to discern where coaches will be pointing their attention.
“We didn’t score on the power play and I don’t think they did either,” Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart said. “Obviously, both coaches will be looking at their power play.”
Everything was going according to plan with 6:33 left in the first for the Brown Bears. For the most part, they had been denying Fairbanks space in the center of the ice and puck possession had allowed them to draw a few penalties.
Then Logan Coomes and Todd Burgess broke out on a two-on-one just 14 seconds into the power play, with Coomes finishing the opportunity.
Just 14 seconds later, Ryan Kero won a faceoff to Tyler Tomberlin, who was all alone for a tap-in on the far pipe.
The Bears earned another power play with 2:22 left, and Tomberlin and Reggie Lutz broke out with Lutz finishing the chance.
“It’s just one game,” Stewart said. “We got pretty fortunate there early. We had some puck luck.”
But of Fairbanks’ nine returners, three had over 30 points last year. Beauparlant said his squad must learn that giving such talent even half a step is dangerous.
“That’s the style Fairbanks plays,” Beauparlant said. “You have to understand who the opponent is, and understand what their strength is.”
Two of those returners with over 30 points last season combined to help put the game away in the second period, as Burgess and Ryner Gorowsky found the back of the net. Evan Somoza also had a tally in building the 6-0 cushion.
“The veterans had a good night,” Stewart said. “It was good to see them on the scoresheet.”
Stewart also said Coomes, with a game-high three points, was rewarded for rededicating himself to hockey after getting bounced around leagues for a year and a half.
After the fourth goal of the game, Beauparlant pulled goalie Nicholas Nast in favor of Brian Baker, but the coach said it wasn’t because of Nast’s play.
“He had no chance on any of the four,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears got a fish on the ice for the first time with 4:55 left in the second period, when Evan Butcher pulled up on the rush and whipped the puck cross-ice to Jeff Solow. Solow’s shot was tipped in by Joey Sardina.
Beauparlant thought Sardina was the best player for the Bears, and also said he teamed with Butcher and Justin Bofshever for the Bears’ best line.
The Bears then won the third period on a goal by Jack Gessert with under a second to play.
The tally tied Gessert with Brad Duwe, the Soldotna High School product and current University of Alaska Anchorage skater, for the Bears’ all-time lead at 41.
But Beauparlant said even more important for captain Gessert and assistant captains Sam Carlson and Adam Kresl was the way they led during the tough home opener.
“I didn’t see any huge swings emotionally,” Beauparlant said. “Our guys stayed together and stayed positive on the bench.
“For the most part, we did the things we worked on the past two weeks.”
Saturday, Kenai River got on the board first when Kresl scored on assists from Charles Spetz and Cameron Cook. Burgess evened the score before the end of the first period.
The Bears then controlled the second period, with Jordan Hank scoring on assists from Ashton Amaya and Solow, and Sardina scoring short-handed on assists from Butcher and Solow.
But a barrage of six Fairbanks goals in the third period decided the game.
“Guys were not identifying guys coming into the zone,” Beauparlant said. “We’ve got a young, inexperienced team and we need to find ways to win hockey games.
“We’ve got to learn from this and learn how to close out close games.”
The coach said Fredrick Blomgren and Anchorage’s Croix Evingson had solid debuts at defense. He also said the grind line of Kresl, Carlson and Bofshever was solid, as was the play of Hank.
The Bears head on the road to face the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Friday and Saturday. Those are the first two games of a 10-game road trip.
“It’s going to be great for team chemistry,” Beauparlant said. “I like where we are at already, and this is only going to increase it.”
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 3 3 0 —6
Kenai River 0 1 1 —2
First period — 1. Coomes (Burgess), sh, 13:41; 2. Fairbanks, Tomberlin (Kero), sh, 13:55; 3. Fairbanks, Lutz (Tomberlin), sh, 18:19. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Fairbanks, Burgess (Coomes, Gorowsky), 3:00; 5. Fairbanks, Somoza (Stridsberg, Kero), 5:32; 6. Fairbanks, Gorowsky (Coomes), 8:52; 7. Kenai River, Sardina (Butcher, Selow), 15:05. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 14:00.
Third period — 8. Kenai River, Gessert (Spetz, Keane), 19:59. Penalties — Fairbanks 5 for 23:00; Kenai River 3 for 8:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 12-17-7—36; Kenai River 12-8-3—23.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Lindgren (23 shots, 21 saves); Kenai River, Nast (16 shots, 12 saves), Baker (20 shots, 18 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 5, Kenai River 0 for 5.
Ice Dogs 7, Brown Bears 3
Fairbanks 1 0 6 —7
Kenai River 1 2 0 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Kresl (Spetz, Cook), 15:25; 2. Fairbanks, Burgess (Gorowsky), 18:24. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Hank (Amaya, Solow), 3:47; 4. Kenai River, Sardina (Butcher, Solow), sh, 19:08. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Fairbanks, McPheters (Cahill, Tomberlin), 1:13; 6. Fairbanks, Plunkett (Gorowsky, Coomes), 9:00; 7. Fairbanks, Mehnert (un.), 9:37; 8. Fairbanks, Burgess (un.), 18:03; 9. Fairbanks, Coomes (Gorowsky), 19:09; 10. Fairbanks, Junger (Mehnert, Somoza), 19:50. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 16-6-17—39; Kenai River 8-11-10—29.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Lindgren (29 shots, 26 saves); Kenai River, Baker (39 shots, 32 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 4; Kenai River 0 for 3.