The Kenai River Brown Bears earned a two-game sweep over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs with a 3-2 shootout victory Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in North American Hockey League action.
“It’s huge,” said Kenai River forward Hayden Walters, who had a goal in the game. “We needed those points to stay in the playoff push.”
With the sweep, the Bears moved into third place in the Midwest Division. The Wisconsin Windigo, with 71 points, have already clinched a playoff spot, while the Minnesota Wilderness, with 69 points, are a near lock to do so.
The battle for the final two playoff spots is looking more and more like a battle between four teams.
The Bears (29-22-2-1) are in third with 61 points and six games left, the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel are in fourth with 60 points and seven games left, the Ice Dogs (26-23-6-1) are in fifth with 59 points and four games left, and the Anchorage Wolverines are in sixth with 57 points and seven games left.
In such a tight playoff race, the Bears earned a big point by winning the shootout. Kenai River’s Casper Conradsson Kelvgaard beat Kayden Hargraves in the shootout, and Kenai River’s Nils Wallstrom stopped all three Fairbanks shooters.
“The extra point, as much as the shootout there at the end maybe seems like a ploy for the fans, that extra point is going to end up mattering here,” Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said.
The Ice Dogs have traditionally gotten the better of the Bears in their rivalry, but Kenai River has used a hot streak against Fairbanks to make a playoff push.
The Bears are now 5-3-0-2 against Fairbanks this season, and have earned 11 points in their last six games against the Ice Dogs, including two straight sweeps against Fairbanks. Kenai River now has 17 points in its last 11 games, while the Ice Dogs have six points in their last 11 games.
The Club 49 Cup stands at 28 for Anchorage, 24 for Fairbanks and 18 for the Brown Bears.
The rivalry keeps right on cooking when the Bears travel to Fairbanks for 7:30 p.m. games Friday and Saturday.
“Unfortunately, we’ve put ourselves in a position where our backs are against the wall,” Fairbanks assistant coach Dakota Bell said. “We responded well tonight when adversity hit.
“I’m sure it’s going to be rocking in the Dipper on Friday and Saturday, but we’ve got to make sure, again, to keep emotional balance because it’s so important.”
The Midwest Division standings have been so tight that Shaw has been saying since about 17 games remained that every game is a playoff game. The first two periods and the first half of the third period showed these are two teams already used to playoff hockey.
“It was a pretty tight game,” Shaw said. “Not a lot of power plays or special teams for either side.”
Both teams earned just one power play and did not score on it. The most excitement for the mostly full sports complex came with 17:21 left in the second period, when the referee didn’t see that Hargraves had failed to control the puck and blew the whistle, negating a tap-in by Walters.
“We’ve just got to keep pushing through everything. Battle adversity,” Walters said. “It doesn’t really matter if he waives that off. We’ve just got to keep playing the game.”
The game took awhile to come to a boil, but finally did with 12:56 remaining, when Walters got a nice pass from Garett Drotts and put the Bears up 1-0. Shaw said Walters had a nice weekend for the Bears, showing the pace and heaviness to his game that makes him so dynamic.
“Once one goes in, the energy starts building up and it’s like, ‘OK. Now I have to take that chance that I wouldn’t have earlier,’” Bell said.
With 3:19 left, Tyler Herzberg took one of those chances from the slot and tied it. Shaw said Fairbanks does a nice job on the cycle of getting five guys flowing in the offensive zone.
“We lost a guy in there, but I like our guys response to go back and get one back,” Shaw said.
Just 21 seconds later, Jacob Zwirecki let one fly from the point and the puck found its way through a ton of traffic and into the net. Jack Anderson and Bryce Monrean had assists.
“I thought our guys responded really well,” Bell said. “We haven’t done that at times, but tonight, in a good, close game in a tough barn to play in, I thought we did a good job with that.”
Just 25 seconds after Zwirecki’s strike, the Ice Dogs’ Joey Potter brought the puck down the ice and snapped one past Wallstrom.
“I think that’s probably one Nils wishes he could have back and he’d be the first one to tell you that,” Shaw said.
The coach said what was important was the way Wallstrom responded, with several big saves in overtime, then three tough saves to win the shootout.
“He’s one heck of a goalie,” Walters said. “He puts us on his shoulders and carries us through battles.”
Bell had no problem with the moves put on by Brady Welsch, Julian Recine and Billy Renfrew in the shootout.
“I liked our guys and what they did,” Bell said. “Their goalie made some unbelievable saves. Some NHL-like, highlight-quality saves. Hats off to him.”
Wallstrom had 29 saves in the game, while Hargraves had 39.
Brown Bears 3, Ice Dogs 2, SO
Fairbanks 0 0 2 0 0 —2
Kenai River 0 0 2 0 1 —3
First period — none. Penalties — none.
Second period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 1. Kenai River, Walters (Drotts), 7:04; 2. Fairbanks, Herzberg (Welsch, Berry), 16:41; 3. Kenai River, Zwirecki (J. Anderson, Monrean), 17:02; 4. Fairbanks, Potter (Herzberg, Biraben), 17:27. Penalties — none.
Overtime — none. Penalties — none.
Shootout — Fairbanks 0 (Welsch NG, Recine NG, Renfrew NG); Kenai River 1 (Conradsson Kelvgaard G, Lockwood NG).
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 12-8-11-0—31; Kenai River 10-18-13-0—41.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Hargraves (41 shots, 39 saves); Kenai River, Wallstrom (31 shots, 29 saves).