FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks Ice Dogs become spectators today after holding off a late threat Friday night by the Kenai River Brown Bears and sweeping their North American Hockey League West Division semifinal series.
Fairbanks emerged with a 3-2 victory in the Soldotna Sports Center in Game 3 after the top-seeded Ice Dogs posted shutouts of the fourth-seeded Brown Bears in the first two games of the series on their home sheet at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
Goaltender Steve Perry recorded 29 saves, Rudy Sulmonte scored a goal and had an assist and Max Birkinbine contributed two assiists for the reigning West Division titlist and last year’s Robertson Cup champion.
Fairbanks, 42-13-8, will learn the identity of its West Division final opponent tonight after the fifth and deciding game of the semifinal series between the second-seeded Wenatchee Wild and third-seeded Alaska Avalanche. Wenatchee evened its series at two games apiece Friday with a 7-1 rout in Palmer. The dates of the division final haven’t been announced, but the Ice Dogs will open the series at the Dipper.
“Whomever it’s going to be, it’s going to be a tough opponent,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said Friday by cell phone. “We really don’t know what to expect but we know that we’re going to be in a dog fight.”
The Ice Dogs finished a penalty-free first period with a pair of goals with less than 2:30 remaining.
Gabe Levin, set up by Sean O’Rourke, notched his first postseason marker at 17:50 into the game. Sulmonte got help from Birkinbine to deposit his first playoff goal with 23 seconds on the scoreboard clock.
Fairbanks generated 17 shots to Kenai River’s four. Forward Jeff Earnest accounted for five of the Ice Dogs shots, with three of them during the first five minutes into the contest.
Kenai River cut the lead to 2-1 in the second period after capitalizing on a two-man power play. Matt Thompson provided the Brown Bears’ first postseason goal at 16:13 into the period, aided by Jesse Ramsey and Brett Lubanski.
The Ice Dogs had gone 156 minutes, 13 seconds into the series without letting a puck get past their goaltenders. Fairbanks won 3-0 in Game 1 on April 6 and 4-0 the next night.
The Brown Bears’ two-man advantage Friday started with a hooking minor by Ice Dogs forward Alec Hajdukovich at the 14:47 mark. Five seconds later, the teams were at 4-on-4 after Kenai River’s Sean Muller picked up a hooking penalty. Fairbanks started skating two players short when Birkinbine was whistled for roughing at15:40 into the period.
“We came out really strong in the first period and we got some breaks and scored some goals,” Stewart said. “We were a little flat in the second. They had four power-play opportunities and we weren’t really able to keep the momentum we had in the first.
“We then came out a little more inspired in the third.”
Pavlo Padakin assured the Ice Dogs of returning to the West Division final by scoring at 7:12 into the third period with assists from Sulmonte and Birkinbine.
The Brown Bears pulled goaltender Austin Severson for an extra attacker late in the third and Muller scored unassisted with 7 seconds left in the game. Severson finished with 24 saves for Kenai River, which ended the season at 31-28-4.
Including the playoffs, the Ice Dogs went 11-1-3 this season against the Brown Bears.
Contact staff writer Danny Martin at 459-7586.