The Kenai River Brown Bears spent four arduous seasons chasing the elite in the North American Hockey League West Division, finishing no better than fourth place each year.
Nearly 20 games into 2011-12, Kenai River’s fortunes have finally changed.
The Bears (13-4-1, 27 points) enter the final series of a nine-game road trip with the best record in the NAHL West, visiting the defending league champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and the same time Saturday.
Fairbanks, losers of five straight, holds second place with a record of 9-5-5 and 23 points.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Kenai River coach Oliver David, in his second full season with the club. “It’s kind of the theme every week, but these are some very important games — a big test with where we stand.”
Where the Bears stand now is in uncharted territory.
Never has the team held first place this deep in a season. Never has it possessed a winning record at this juncture, either — Kenai River’s previous best start through 18 games was last year’s 8-8-2 mark.
And never has there been a more successful stretch away from the Soldotna Sports Center for the Bears, who are 6-0-1 on the current swing.
Perhaps for the first time in club history, it’s fair to consider the Bears a threat to compete for a division title.
But despite the success, no one in the Bears’ camp is ready to give the team elite status.
“My approach to where we sit on the leader board is just the same as if we were sitting at the bottom,” David said of Kenai River, which has won nine games by one goal and lost just two. “The scoreboard in this case is not a great indicator of how well we have played at times. We have not played well at times and strung together a good few minutes and walked away with points and wins.”
That 11 of the Bears’ 18 games have been decided by one goal shows how thin the line is between success and hardship.
Kenai River was 3-6 in one-goal contests and .500 overall at this stage of 2010-11.
The Bears went on to finish in fourth place and were swept by the Ice Dogs in the opening round of the playoffs.
“Last year we played very well at times and lost games, and that will happen this year,” David said. “Luckily, and the key word is ‘luckily,’ we’ve had a complete 180-degree turn, where we haven’t always played well but are finding ourselves atop the leader board.”
Much of the credit goes to the veterans.
Second-year forwards Sean Muller and Matt Thompson have combined for 13 goals and 10 assists and are playing well on the road, David said, while defensemen Raymond Stenehjem, Jesse Ramsey and Ryan Walker — all returning players — solidify the back line.
Fellow returner Alex Frere, meanwhile, is tops on the team and second in the league with 14 goals.
The line of second-year forward Dominic Granato and newcomers Nick O’Donnell and Skyler McKnight also has been productive, the coach added.
Then there’s third-year player and captain Brett Lubanksi, who on Monday was named the NAHL’s “First Star of the Week,” the league’s equivalent of the player of the week.
Lubanski had seven points in a pair of wins over the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage last weekend.
Holding first place means more to Lubanski, the team’s lone third-year athlete, than perhaps another other player.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to see the team and the guys having success, and see things work out for the organization the way we dreamed of,” Lubanski said. “For us to have a solid position, although it’s only the first half of the season, is very promising. It shows what a great job coach Oliver has done, and that we are without a doubt moving in the right direction.”
Where the team goes over the remaining 42 games will in part depend on how it reacts to roster moves by the opposition.
The Brown Bears’ operating budget is smaller than division counterparts Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, among others, meaning some teams will acquire top-level players as the season progresses simply because they have the money to do it.
David said the Ice Dogs recently reacquired goaltender Steve Perry, who was part of the 2010-11 championship team, in a move that will strengthen their defense.
Fairbanks also recently traded for defenseman Russell Finch, a top defender who started the season with the St. Louis Bandits.
The Bandits hold first place in the NAHL Midwest Division, and Finch was a plus-six player for them, meaning the team scored six more goals than it allowed with him on the ice.
“They haven’t hit their stride yet,” David said of Fairbanks. “I imagine they will. Hopefully, it’s not this weekend.”