The Kenai River Brown Bears will play two of the most important regular-season games in the franchise’s history, to date, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The Bears take on the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters at 7:05 p.m. on both nights.
Kenai River and Fresno are tied for the final playoff spot from the North American Hockey League West Division heading into the series.
The Brown Bears have a 26-22-3 record, while the Monsters also have 55 points thanks to a 23-20-9 record.
“It’s a very big series, but there’s a few things we have on our side in this race,” Brown Bears coach Oliver David said.
The Bears have seven games left after the series, while the Monsters have only six.
Kenai River faces Dawson Creek (British Columbia), which is in last place in the West, three times at the sports center. The Brown Bears also visit the third-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer for four games.
Fresno must travel to the red-hot, first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs for two games and to the second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild for two games. The Monsters also host the Wild twice.
“Statswise, their road is pretty tough to finish the year, and we’re clinging to that fact as we come down the stretch” David said. “This is a very pivotal series. We cannot afford not to get a point or two.
“If we leave this series with a split, it’s basically a wash. Anything better than a split, and we have the upper hand.”
The Brown Bears also have an edge in potential tiebreakers due to Kenai River’s penchant for winning in extra time.
The Bears are 5-1-2 against Fresno, with three of those victories coming in overtime and one coming in a shootout. Fresno is 3-1-4 against the Bears, with one victory coming in overtime and one coming in a shootout.
Six of the eight games the teams have played have went to extra time.
Kenai River also enjoys a 26-23 advantage in wins because the Bears are 7-1 in shootouts and 4-2 in overtimes this year, while the Monsters are 3-4 in shootouts and 2-5 in overtimes.
David said all those details are not vital right now. He’s still looking at the season as a marathon, where once in a while runners check out the competition, but mainly focus on their own race.
“Even after this series, we have seven games remaining and they have six,” David said. “There’s a lot of points yet to be had. We’ll see where we stand after the next 48 hours.”
Like any marathoner nearing the end of the race, the Bears are feeling the effects of a long competition.
Bobby Murphy, who is tied for fourth on the team with 28 points, will not play in the series and is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
Marek Hemsky was just starting to find the back of the net after joining the team late in the year, but he is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
Defenseman Jake Spinder is working his way back into the lineup after taking 40 stitches after being kicked in the face against the Avs on March 3.
Defenseman Vincent Stefan also is questionable with a hand injury heading into this series.
“Some guys might have to play that could maybe use another day or two of rest,” David said.
One player who shouldn’t expect much rest anytime soon is goalie Austin Severson, who is 19-15-3 for the Bears. Severson has been the goalie of record in the last 11 games.
“Severson is our No. 1 goalie from here on out,” David said. “He will be playing as much as he is capable of. I’m not worried about it.”
The Bears typically struggle to draw a good crowd to the sports center for a Tuesday and Wednesday series. With spring break and the state basketball tournament in Anchorage going on, the club is pulling out all the stops to try and get fans to attend the games.
David said the players are blanketing area businesses with free tickets. The coach, who had 300 free tickets in his pocket as he was being interviewed Monday, said that those who want to go to the games for free should be able to find some free tickets.
“It’s the first tight playoff race in our team’s history, and this is really the most competitive series, and it falls on a Tuesday and Wednesday,” David said. “Maybe we can get a few new fans.
“I can tell you right now, it’s going to be competitive hockey.”