After getting swept for the first time this season, the Kenai River Brown Bears hope to gain some cheer heading into a holiday break.
The Bears host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center before taking a three-week recess.
Kenai River is coming off back-to-back losses to the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer and sits in third place in the North American Hockey League West Division with a record of 16-9-1 and 33 points.
Alaska is in first at 22-9-2, good 46 points, while Fairbanks holds second at 15-7-6, good 36 points.
Coach Oliver David called this a huge series, which figures to be a recurring attitude as the Bears battle for playoff positioning in the tight NAHL West.
“We just have to get comfortable with being in a high level of competition,” said David, whose squad is off to its best start in club history. “It’s like college football or college basketball, you literally lose one game and you can lose 10 spots in the rankings and you still have an unbelievable winning record. When you’re ranked — and we’re not ranked — but when you are, and you drop one game or you drop one weekend, everything shifts. The landscape shifts.”
What has shifted over the past month is where the Bears stand in the division.
Kenai River enjoyed the top spot during the early portion of the schedule, but has since been leapfrogged by both Alaska and Fairbanks.
Alaska has played seven more games than Kenai River, meaning the Bears will get their chance to close the gap, and Fairbanks has two games on the Bears.
And despite the fact the Avs lead the division and recently swept the Bears, David said the Ice Dogs are the toughest draw for his side.
Kenai River is 2-2-0 against Fairbanks. The teams have six straight games against one another, with a pair of two-game sets slated for January.
“I still feel Fairbanks is not a great matchup for us. They are very crafty, and we have a lot of things to clean up in the defensive zone,” David said of the defending league champs. “They should be good games, and hopefully we come out even or better.”
Not only are the Bears chasing a pair of in-state rivals in the standings, but they are trying to hold off the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters and Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild.
Fresno trails Kenai River by two points and Wenatchee is three behind.
What it amounts to is a five-team race for four playoff berths. Fairbanks, Kenai River, Fresno and Wenatchee are separated by just six points — the equivalent of three victories.
“It’s going to be an incredible second half of the season,” David said. “There’s no other division in the league like it. Most of those races have already been determined.”
Lubanski signs with Holy Cross
Brett Lubanski, Kenai River’s captain and longest-tenured player, has signed with College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
The school features a Division I hockey program.
“It’s pretty hard to describe,” said Lubanksi, 20. “That’s been a goal of mine, for us to win and for me to achieve personal success along the way.”
Lubanski joined the Brown Bears in 2009-10 and endured a last-place finish in his first year.
The Michigan native was named captain the following season and helped engineer the squad to its first winning record in franchise history, leading the Bears in assists.
This season, Lubanksi also is the squad’s assists leader.
He hopes to play immediately for the Crusaders, who are currently 8-7-0. Holy Cross belongs to the Atlantic Hockey Conference.
“They have said they would like to see me come in and play right away,” Lubanski said. “I have to show them that I am capable of doing that. It’s great to hear that they have the confidence in my ability to play right away.”
Ramsey headed to Air Force
Jesse Ramsey, who joined the Bears midway through 2009-10, will play next season at the Air Force Academy.
Air Force features a Division I program, leading the Atlantic Hockey Conference standings with a record of 9-4-2.
“It feels great,” Ramsey said. “All the hard work I put in has finally paid off.”
Ramsey, 20, has played forward as well as defense for the Bears. He currently is tied for second on the team with 13 assists. Ramsey, a native of Rogers, Minn., is expected to play right away.
“It was a perfect fit,” David said. “It’s his dream-type school.”
Ramsey was drawn to the Falcons not only for their hockey stature, but because he is interested in pursuing a career in aviation. He will play defense for the school in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Ramsey said he hopes his signing motivates teammates to stick with the Bears through their entire NAHL career.
“I’m sure with the younger players, it motivates them to play until they age out,” Ramsey said of the league 20-year-old age limit. “Colleges want you to be away from home so you know what’s it like, so you don’t get homesick. It’s exciting for sure.”
Dahlstrom bound for Northern Michigan
Mathias Dahlstrom, who was a goaltender for the Bears last season and now plays in the United States Hockey league, recently received a full-ride scholarship to Northern Michigan University.
David said he is the first current or former Bear to land a full ride.
“It’s incredible for him,” David said of the native of Sweden, who split time in net with Josh Benton in 2010-11. “He had five or six schools going after him, and he got a great offer.”