With a strong national showing under their belt and the addition of two key players made official, the Kenai River Brown Bears return to action today.
The Bears, fresh off a 3-1 effort at the North American Hockey League Showcase Tournament in Blaine, Minn., host the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer at 7:30 p.m. today and at the same time Saturday. Both games are at the Soldotna Sports Center.
And there will be a pair of familiar faces back on Kenai River's bench when the puck drops.
Brandon Fisher, a Soldotna product, and Ryan Walker, the team's rookie of the year in 2010-11, recently joined the team.
Walker returns after being invited to train for a spot with the United States Hockey League. When a shoulder injury hindered his progress, the defenseman contacted Kenai River coach Oliver David and asked if the Bears had space.
"That's the best phone call you can get," David said. "We got our rookie of the year back who was invited to play in the USHL. He probably wouldn't be here if he was healthy and entered their camp healthy."
Walker is the only defenseman in club history to finish a season as a "plus player," meaning the team scored more goals than it allowed when he was on the ice.
He won't be on the ice against the Avs, but David expects Walker to return next weekend against the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters.
The right-hander is recovering from a torn rotator cuff.
The additions of Walker and Fisher means the Bears feature 11 players who were on last year's team, which won the most games in club history.
"It's a joy. The boys are here," Walker said Thursday, two days after joining the team. "I'm excited. Everything is new - we've got new jerseys, new sticks, new sponsors. I'm excited."
The Bears (4-2-0, 8 points) must trim their roster to 23 by Oct. 3 and keep it there for the rest of the season, meaning with every addition, there also is a subtraction.
Rookies Jake Pollack and Theo Tydingco are no longer with the team. And since there are 24 players listed on the roster for today's contest, one more player must soon go.
"This weekend is still really a tryout weekend," David said. "There are guys that are going to be in and out of the lineup that are going to have one last crack at being a Brown Bear at the deadline here."
David's moves over the past week didn't stop at personnel. The coach shuffled his lines, too.
He swapped forwards Bobby Murphy and Mikael Arkimo, meaning Murphy rather than Arkimo will today play alongside center Brett Lubanski and forward Alex Frere. Arkimo moves onto a line with returning players Matt Thompson and Sean Muller.
The third line, which David said is arguably the best on the team right now, features three rookies - Chris Nuth, Zac Lazzaro and Kellen Wasell.
Nuth and Wassell have been on the ice for eight of the Bears' 21 goals, the most of any tandem.
"The reason is their effort and willingness to share the puck. Their forechecking is phenomenal. It creates turnover after turnover after turnover," David said. "They don't play with the puck, they distribute the puck. It's a lesson in teamwork to watch those guys move around the ice."
Nuth and Wasell emerged at the showcase tournament, where Kenai River's only loss came 4-2 against the undefeated Janesville (Wis.) Jets.
In the loss, two of the Jets goals came on the power play. David said winning plays on special teams is an area of emphasis for the Bears.
"It's always something that we're working on. It's fun for the kids. Everyone wants to be part of it. Guys on our team take pride in it. Special teams is make or break in hockey more than people realize," David said. "Just like football, quarterbacks go back and forth, everyone does their job, you get it close enough to kick a field goal on special teams and the kicker comes on - game over, three points."
Kenai River could earn four points with a pair of wins over the Avs (2-3-1, 5 points), who are coming off a split against the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild.
"It's not like we get a fly-by or anything," David said. "It's not four guaranteed points. There's no such thing."