After a nearly three-week hiatus, the Kenai River Brown Bears will look to continue the best start in team history when the Fairbanks Ice Dogs visit the Soldotna Sports Center today and Saturday.
There’s one problem, though. Even with the superlative start, the Bears would not be in the North American Hockey League playoffs if the season ended today.
Kenai River has a 17-10-1 record, which has the Bears sitting fifth in the West division. The top four in the division make the playoffs.
The good news for the Bears, however, is that they have played the least amount of games in the entire league, tied with Traverse City (Mich.) at 28. That will give Kenai River ample opportunity to catch up in the second half of the season.
“We sit 15th overall (out of 28) in the entire league with the least amount of games played, so I’m pretty happy with that,” coach Oliver David said. “Our goal for the season is to place third or higher in the division, and we entered the break third, and other teams played games after that on the 30th and 31st.”
The Alaska Avalanche of Palmer is ranked first in the division with 47 points, the Ice Dogs have collected 43, and below that, it is a wild scramble. Wenatchee (Wash.) is in a tie for third with Fresno (Calif.), with 36 points apiece, and the Bears are sitting just a single point below the Wild and Monsters in fifth.
The third-year head coach is looking to make a few changes on the roster in order to improve. Concussions and other injuries have taken their usual toll on the team. In order to fill holes created by Miikael Arkimo and Nick O’Donnell, who have both been sidelined due to concussions, David said acquiring players like Connor Deal from Anchorage has been positive.
“Connor is an affiliate player of ours, filling in games when guys have been injured, and he practiced with us and got the opportunity to play, and he scored his first goal,” David said. “Over the break, we felt it was the right thing to use his skills. From there, we will continue to test the waters, and see who else becomes available.”
The Bears share the rink with the Ice Dogs the next two weekends, facing off at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday before traveling to the Golden Heart city the following weekend.
“We would like to get points at home, and try to steal points from them when we go to Fairbanks,” said David, who also mentioned that the games will come down to who is more prepared, and who puts in a bigger effort.
“At the end of the night, if we win more races to the puck, if we get more shots on net, and we have more chances, then I’m pretty positive that’s how you win games.”
The strength of the division is also a testament to just how strong the Bears have become over the last two years. Five of the six teams are over the .500 mark for the season, and the Avs and Ice Dogs are both in the top 10 of the entire league. David said the fact that the Bears are keeping the scoring close goes to show how strong they are.
“Most of our games are either in overtime or a shootout, so it’s unbelievable how competitive we’ve gotten,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with our guys, and we have a good start. These guys are getting good, and they are hoping to play for college hockey.”