There are excuses, and then there are basic biological facts.
Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said he doesn’t want to make excuses for his team’s recent 1-5 slide that has left the Bears three points behind in the playoff race.
But David said he does understand that his team did not have the energy it normally does during the six-games-in-nine-days stretch due to the flu.
He said half of the team has had the flu, and some players had it for all six of the games.
“Hockey is all about energy,” David said. “When you’re suffering from something like that, you’re not hydrated, you have crud in your chest and lungs, you have head colds, headaches, and you’re trying to chase the puck around with your heart rate over 200.”
David said he was fighting through the flu over that stretch himself.
“It affects everything,” David said. “It affected my focus on the bench. I wasn’t as sharp.”
While some players are still dealing with the disease’s effects, David said the team is recovering heading into crucial games today, Friday and Saturday against the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Tonight’s game starts at 7:05 p.m., while the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
“The sickness is dissipating slowly,” David said. “We’ve had guys miss practice this week needing to take a little more time to recover.
“The attitude is pretty positive. Guys are having fun in practice this week. I’m starting to see smiles on more faces.”
In terms of the playoff race, the Bears have no more time to lose. Kenai River is fighting with the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League West Division.
The Monsters took control of the race last weekend. While Kenai River was losing two games at the third-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer, Fresno was earning three points in a two-game series at the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Fresno is now 25-21-10, good for 60 points, while the Bears are 27-25-3, good for 57 points.
The Bears have five more games to play — the three this weekend against the Rage, then two at the Avalanche. The Monsters have four games left, all against the second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild.
“I don’t know how many points it is going to take to do anything,” David said. “We’re going to make it a small-picture task, really focusing on each shift, each period.”
The Bears are 5-2 this year against the Rage. Dawson Creek is 10-40-3, but showed recently it has not thrown in the towel on the season.
The Rage had lost 12 straight games until defeating the Wild 2-1 in Wenatchee on Saturday to finish 2-9-1 this year against the Wild.
“Dawson has been able to stay the course and stick with competing at a very high level,” David said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Last season, the Rage came to Soldotna for the final weekend of the season. Then, as now, the Rage were out of the playoff race. Dawson Creek still picked up five points in the three-game series.
David said the Rage have a very big, strong and fast team, and are dangerous when they are allowed to build up speed going through the neutral zone.
“We’ve got to get pucks deep and make their big guys skate the ice if they want to create offense,” David said. “No neutral-zone turnovers. No blue-line turnovers. We have to make them earn it.”
David said Kenai River also could gain an advantage in the series on the power play. Kenai River has 826 penalty minutes this season, the least in the West. Dawson Creek leads the division with 1,326 penalty minutes.
The Rage are 26th in the league on the power play and 27th on the penalty kill. The Bears are 17th on the power play and 25th on the penalty kill.
“One thing they do well on the penalty kill is block shots,” David said. “Every single one of them is willing to stand in front of every shot.”
If the Bears don’t make the playoffs, this will be the last series at the sports center for Brett Lubanski, Jesse Ramsey and Raymond Stenehjem. All three have been with the team for three years.
It also could be the last home series for two-year players, such as Anchorage’s Sean Muller, Matt Thompson and Bobby Murphy, although Murphy is out of the series with a knee injury.
The only other player that may miss the series with an injury is Marek Hemsky, who will be a game-time decision with a shoulder injury.
“All the guys that have been doing this, this is their chance to give back to the fans and really show appreciation through hard work and good effort,” David said.