The Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 3-2 on Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to earn a split in the weekend series.
The Ice Dogs had taken the Friday opener 4-2.
Saturday was the last home game for Bears players Gustav Berglund, Tyler Andrews, Alex Jackstadt, Joseph Kaszupski, Zack Zulkanycz and Evan Hauser.
“It came down to guys laying it on the line,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “They weren’t going to be denied. It had nothing to do with systems. We just wanted it more than they did.
“Our guys decided when they got knocked down they weren’t going to lie down. We wanted to send our 20-year-olds out with a win on home ice.”
The Ice Dogs, now 12-2 against Kenai River, had plenty on the line. Fairbanks (38-16-4) is tied with the Minnesota Wilderness for first place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.
Fairbanks has two games left, both against Kenai River in Fairbanks, to try and earn home-ice advantage, while the Wilderness have three games remaining.
Kenai River improved to 16-40-2 and is one point behind the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes at the bottom of the league standings.
But the Bears have been nobody’s doormat lately. The team has allowed the second-most goals in the league, but has allowed just 19 goals in the last eight games. Now that includes holding Fairbanks, the top-scoring team in the league, to five goals in two games, if a Friday empty-netter is not included.
“We’ve fallen into a system that works for us and suits our style of play and the way we want to play,” Beauparlant said. “To execute it takes a lot of hard work. It’s a system that isn’t used very often and we’ll continue to work on it to finish out this year and start to prepare for next year.”
The 1994 birthdates got the Bears started in the first period, when Jackstadt knocked in a puck out of midair. Kaszupski and Zulkanycz had assists.
In the second period, Adam Kresl had a power-play tally, assisted by Matt Rudin and Andrews, for a 2-0 game. Ethan Somoza cut the gap to 2-1, but Kaszupski, assisted by Jack Nickels and Jeff Solow, struck on the power play again before the end of the second period.
Jesper Ohrvall scored with about five minutes left in the game for Fairbanks, but Hauser, who made 48 saves, held the fort for the Bears. Patrick Munson made 22 saves for the Ice Dogs.
“The 94s, all six of them played fantastic hockey,” Beauparlant said. “You could see they wanted it badly, but they kept their emotions under control.”
The Ice Dogs kept pace in the race for home-ice advantage throughout the divisional playoffs with a 4-2 victory over the Bears on Friday.
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,” 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, 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 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 Jackstadt, who took an artful route to the net before dumping to 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 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 on Friday and 805 on Saturday. The Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association U-14 Tier II girls team that won the Pacific District was honored Friday and the KPHA Squirt Minor team that won the Alaska State Hockey Association State Tournament was honored Saturday.
“It’s great to see everybody rally around the teams,” Beauparlant said.
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.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 2
Fairbanks 0 1 1 —2
Kenai River 1 2 0 —3
First period — 1. Kenai River, Jackstadt (Kaszupski, Zulkanycz), 10:49.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Kresl (Rudin, Andrews), pp, 1:22; 3. Fairbanks, Somoza (Mueller, Madry), 7:14; 4. Kenai River, Kaszupski (Nickels, Solow), pp, 13:26.