With the final two games of the season looming today and Saturday, the Kenai River Brown Bears must win at least one of their games to even have a chance at making the North American Hockey League playoffs.
“The keys are going to be our effort, good goaltending and good team defense,” head coach Oliver David said. “It’s more about relying on guys to do their defensive jobs, and managing the puck with the team in mind. We’re relying on a team defense from the goalie out, as well as spectacular goaltending to give ourselves a chance.”
David knows the situation the team is in, but luckily the team has the experience it needs.
Last year, the Bears managed to include themselves in the playoffs after beating out Dawson Creek for fourth place in the West Division by 10 points.
This year, the points race is much closer, as Kenai River currently trails Fresno (Calif.) by two points, or the difference of one win, heading into the season-finale, two-game series against the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer, a team with a record of 35-19-4.
The Bears are 29-25-4, while the Monsters are 27-21-10. The Monsters end their season by traveling to play the second-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in two games Friday and Saturday.
The Monsters have been hot lately, earning seven points in their last four games, including four in a two-game series last weekend against the Wild.
Fresno would make it impossible for the Bears to make the playoffs if the Monsters can get at least three points this weekend.
The Avs also have something riding on the weekend. They trail Wenatchee by one point for second place in the division.
David mentioned Dawson Creek’s win Wednesday night over the Avalanche, one in which the Avs outshot the Rage 42-13, but Dawson Creek still came out the winner 5-2, due mostly to goalie Paul Bourbeau, who used to play for Kenai. Bourbeau saved 40 of 42 shots.
“We’re going to need strong goaltending,” David said. “Dawson Creek had five goals in 13 shots, and it all starts on the back end.”
The coach said strong defense and goaltending will lead to goals.
“All of our guys can score goals, our line combinations have proven that when things go right, and they play with energy and effort, they can generate things with the forecheck and get the puck to the net, and it starts with our back end,” he said.
Brett Lubanski, team-captain forward, says the confidence he has with the team is bolstered by the experience level with the Avalanche, as the Bears beat Alaska twice the first week of March this year. Kenai River is 5-8-1 this year against the Avs.
“We’ve had some ups and downs with them in the past, but I think it helps knowing that we’ve beat them before, and had success before,” Lubanski said. “We know it’s possible, and our backs are against the wall, so we’re a dangerous team right now. We have the mind-set that we’re going to win both games.”
Defensive end Jesse Ramsey highlighted a few areas that need work, but said overall the team is working smoothly.
“I personally need to be defensively sound,” Ramsey said. “I’ve been getting some points and producing offensively, but working on defense is key. If we work on that, and things like backchecking and little things like that, we’ll be OK.”
Defenseman Raymond Stenehjem has been with the team for most of three seasons now, and he said the experience of being through the postseason helps tremendously.
“It helps with your nerves a lot, and you’re more prepared for it, and when you get out there on the ice, you’re not always thinking, ‘Oh man, this is the playoffs,’” Stenehjem said. “You think it’s just another hockey game, and you do what you need to do, and stick to the system.”
The stats this year have been slightly reversed for the Brown Bears, as they have scored 11 less total goals, as compared to last year, but have allowed seven less against them, which would suggest a more defensively minded team.
“This year we have a goalie with 21 wins, so goaltending has played a major factor,” David said. “(Goalie Austin) Severson doesn’t necessarily have better numbers, he has more wins, and in the end the team that can win, by whatever margin, with the two points, is the biggest deal.
“We use all these other stats as gauges to figure out what we’re lacking in and what we’re good at, and last year’s numbers were a little higher.”
Unlike last year, however, the Bears are hoping to make some noise in the postseason. One year ago, Kenai struck out with three losses against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who are currently leading the West Division.
Before they think about the playoffs, Kenai needs to think about beating the Avalanche today and Saturday.
“They crash the net really hard, with a three-man forecheck,” Stenehjem said. “They get pucks around the net, and it’s hard to keep guys cleared up front, and if you get in front and the puck pops out to some other guy on their team, they can shoot from the blue line or whatever.”
Both games start at 7:30 p.m. at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.