For most of January, the Kenai River Brown Bears were in a slump, losing six straight games. Things have started to turn around.
The Brown Bears have gone 4-2 in their last six games, including a thrilling rally to beat Dawson Creek (British Columbia) on Saturday.
A big reason for the turnaround is the offensive line consisting of Alex Frere, Chris Nuth and Zac Lazzaro.
“They became a line about a month ago, when we moved Frere from playing right wing, which was not his natural position,” head coach Oliver David said. “(Frere’s old line) had some issues defensively, and over time it became apparent that Frere needed to move back to his usual position.
“Immediately, it became clear that those three are effective.”
Effective would be a good way to put it. David moved Frere back to center position, Lazzaro to left wing and Nuth to right wing.
Together they have scored nine goals in eight games while on the ice together, since Jan. 7 against Fairbanks. Frere has had four goals and four assists for a total of eight points, Nuth has had three goals and three assists for six points, and Lazzaro has had one goal and seven assists for eight points.
“Every game they’ve had multiple points,” David said. “Lazarro is consistently energetic. Frere has a high offensive mind and a good knack for being around the puck and making things happen, as well as a lot of patience and poise around the puck. Nuth has a scoring touch. He’s a 195-pound guy who can grind it out, and create opportunities for the other two.
“It’s been a bright spot for finding combinations.”
The three players have noticed it, too.
“We bring a lot of speed to our forecheck,” Frere said. “We don’t give the other team time with the puck, and Nuth is big guy, so he can bang bodies, Lazarro is smaller, so he can buzz around the rink.”
“Frere is a natural goal scorer,” Lazzaro said. “We try to get him the puck and he finds a way to score.”
“This year, I feel like I have more time with the puck,” Frere said, citing confidence in that area as crucial to his personal success.
Saturday’s win in Dawson Creek was especially sweet, because the Bears were down 3-1 with 30 seconds left in the game.
The Bears pulled goalie Austin Severson when it became apparent they needed the extra offensive help.
“When you pull the goalie, it’s really important to win those puck battles and keep the pressure in their zone, and we got the bounces to go our way,” Lazzaro said.
The Bears evened the match with seven seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime, and ultimately won a shootout to claim victory.
Both Frere and Lazarro cited team chemistry as a big factor in helping them know where the other is on the ice.
“I’m a city guy from Philadelphia, and Kenai is a small-town team, so these guys are easy to get along with,” Lazzaro said. “When you can work with the other guys and depend on them to be somewhere in position on the ice when you need a goal, it certainly helps.”
While the front line has certainly helped the team’s playoff chances, the coach’s decision is part of what makes Oliver David unique.
“Coach has a different way of doing things from previous coaches,” Frere said. “He pays attention to minor details other coaches would overlook.”
David said he is hoping the lineup change continues to pay off when the Bears play Wenatchee (Wash.) today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center.
“I’m expecting a very tight, chess-match kind of competition,” David said, mentioning the Wild is very tough defensively. “Wenatchee is very calculated, they don’t cheat, or risk being out of position, and very rarely they have an odd-man rush.”
The players echoed the coach’s words.
“We’ve been trying to recognize their tendencies, get pucks deep and use our forecheck,” Lazzaro said. “If we can get on them quick and open up some space, we’ll be fine.”
The future is bright for the Brown Bears, as Frere, Nuth, and Lazzaro all have a year of eligibility remaining to play for the team.