The Fairbanks Ice Dogs’ 6-2 North American Hockey League victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears in front of 193 on Sunday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex was overshadowed by a scary, third-period injury to Bears defenseman Jake Hartje.
With 6 minutes, 27 seconds, left in the period, Hartje was checked into the boards from behind by Fairbanks forward Austin Junger, who was given a five-minute major and game misconduct.
Surrounded by medical personnel from both teams and a few teammates, Hartje lay motionless on the ice for 12 minutes, when medical personnel from Central Emergency Services arrived. Hartje’s hands were moving as he was wheeled off the ice.
After the game, Kenai River assistant Andrew Whiteside said Hartje had motion in all of his limbs and was taken to Central Peninsula Hospital as a precautionary measure.
The Bears were down 4-2 and trying to mount a comeback when Hartje went down, but Whiteside said the incident understandably shook up his team a bit when play resumed about 18 minutes after the hit.
“It’s tough coming back after something like that, especially when it is a guy on your team,” Whiteside said. “You can’t help but think about your teammate.”
The Bears did not create any sustained pressure during the five-minute power play, although they did force Fairbanks netminder Gavin Nieto to make a cat-quick save off a rebound with 2:15 to play.
The Ice Dogs then scored twice in the final minute — once on an empty net — to seal up the three-game weekend sweep of the Bears.
Fairbanks had lost three of four coming into the series, but the sweep put them right back on top of the Midwest Division with a 20-4-2 record, including a 10-0 mark against the Bears in the Ravn Alaska Cup.
“We weren’t happy with the way we played the last two weekends, although we did find a way to win the second game against Coulee (Region),” said Nieto, who won all three of the games against Kenai River. “We came in here looking to return to doing the things it takes to win, and we were able to do that this weekend.”
For the Bears, tough times continue to mount. The team is now 1-25-0, with a franchise-high 23 games without a win or a point.
As the team prepares for an eight-game road trip that won’t give it a chance for its first win on sports complex ice until Jan. 15, several key pieces on defense are in question.
Hartje, who is committed to Division I Harvard, arrived in a trade this week from the Minnesota Wilderness and had a third-period goal Sunday despite never practicing with the Bears.
“Few guys can come in like that and do what he did without any practice,” Whiteside said. “I thought he was our best D in three games this weekend.”
Defenseman Jeff Fasegha, the Bears’ No. 1 draft pick, also left Sunday’s game with an upper body injury. Whiteside said he had no update on how long Fasegha would be out.
Sunday, Fairbanks outshot Kenai River 15-7 in the first and 11-6 in the second, but for the most part Kenai River goalie Brian Baker, who made 34 saves, was up to the task. The exceptions were a first-period goal by Todd Burgess and a second-period, power-play tally by Reggie Lutz.
“We were able to apply pressure in the offensive zone,” said Nieto, who made 22 saves. “On defense, when I stopped the puck, the defense was able to clear the rebounds.”
Ryner Gorowsky made it 3-0 with 14:40 left in the game before Kenai River mounted a comeback.
Hartje scored from the high slot when Nieto was screened with 10:53 left, then Jack Gessert hammered home a one-timer on the power play for a 3-2 game with 8:52 to play.
But a failed pinch by a Kenai River defenseman led to an odd-man rush and a Gorowsky goal for a 4-2 game with 7:45 left.
“We do a good job of playing one shot at a time,” Nieto said. “For me, whether it’s a big save or a bad goal, it’s regroup and get on to the next play.”
Burgess was named captain and Gorowsky was named assistant captain for the Ice Dogs this week, and the two responded over the weekend.
Burgess had two goals and an assist Sunday to finish off a three-game stretch with five goals and three assists.
Gorowsky had two goals Sunday and six goals and two assists for the three-game stretch.
“They were huge for us,” Nieto said. “They both did an amazing job in their new roles.”
Whiteside said assistant captains Adam Kresl and Sam Carlson were both solid Sunday, and he said Baker and fellow goaltender Nick Nast did a good job between the pipes all weekend.
“They both competed hard for 60 minutes, Bakes especially,” Whiteside said. “They both gave us everything they had.”
The Bears play at the New Jersey Titans at 2 p.m. AST Friday and 3:30 p.m. AST Saturday.
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 2
Fairbanks 1 1 4 —6
Kenai River 0 0 2 —2
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Burgess (Stridsberg, Cross), 19:07. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Lutz (Burgess, Cross), pp, 18:05. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 3. Fairbanks, Gorowsky (Coomes, Mehnert), 5:20; 4. Kenai River, Hartje (Dufault, Carlson), 9:07; 5. Kenai River, Gessert (Goodmanson), 11:08; 6. Fairbanks, Gorowsky (Coomes, Mehnert), 12:15; 7. Fairbanks, Burgess (Cross, Mehnert), en, 19:20; 8. Fairbanks, Somoza (Kleven, Sullivan), 19:35. Penalties — Fairbanks 4 for 27:00; Kenai River 1 for 10:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 15-11-14—40; Kenai River 7-6-11—24.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Nieto (24 shots, 22 saves); Kenai River, Baker (39 shots, 34 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 1 for 3; Kenai River 1 for 3.