With their playoff spot clinched after two overtime games last week against the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer, the Kenai River Brown Bears can now focus on what they need to do to win some games.
As the fourth seed in the North American Hockey League West division, however, they will face formidable competition in the first round against the first-seeded Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the defending league champions. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday night.
“We’re really focused, everything that we’ve learned from playing Fairbanks this year we can use, and our sweep against the Avalanche at the end of the season really gave us a lot of confidence, so we’re ready,” forward Sean Muller said.
Muller had the shootout goal that won last Saturday’s season finale against the Avalanche, as well as the overtime period shot that won Friday’s matchup.
Between the first and second periods during Saturday’s game, Kenai River received word that Fresno (Calif.) had lost its game that night, which clinched a playoff spot for the Brown Bears.
“We were in the tunnel, and they announced that we clinched, and some of the guys were really excited about that,” Muller said. “But everybody’s attitude was still the same, we wanted to go into the playoffs on a win streak.”
If the Bears are going to attempt an upset against the Ice Dogs, they will have to start the series with a win, if history is any indication.
In the last two seasons in the West Division, each team that has won its series in the first round did it by sweeping the series. In addition, in the second round, in the last two seasons, the only series not to be swept was last year when Fairbanks beat the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild three games to one.
“The way the stats work out, we are up against a big opponent, and if we push this to a game four, then we really got something here,” Kenai River head coach Oliver David said.
Seeing that Kenai River has been 0-6 against Fairbanks in playoff games, David knows it will take every ounce of energy and effort to extend the series.
“They improvise a lot, they are not robotic, and they don’t do the same thing over and over,” David said. “They have the confidence to make a decision with the puck that they feel is the right decision, and when they’re all over the place, it’s tough to have such a stringent read on a guy. It’s not so obvious who your guy is, it’s not so obvious what area you’re supposed to be covering, or what position you’re should be in.”
Interestingly enough, Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart makes the same case for the Brown Bears.
“They throw a lot of things at you, and they definitely have a certain level of unpredictability,” Stewart said. “If we’re going to have success, it’s going to be hard to change things. If we lose, we’ll make some adjustments if that happens.”
David knows that Fairbanks has some cards up its sleeves. He said the organization is actually very structured.
“They have a good coach, good organization, but within that framework, they have some guys that can figure out what to do next quicker than most of their opponents,” David said. “When you have guys that play with that skill and confidence, you need to be lucky, you need good goaltending, and you’re going to have to be willing to really forecheck and backcheck hard to take away time and space.”
Muller says Kenai River needs to use its assets as much as it can.
“We need to outcompete them, and win a lot of stick battles, because they’re a fast team,” Muller said. “We need to know when to outman the puck against them. Our guys that can score, have to score. They need to do their job.”
While the Bears have been improving their defensive effort throughout the season, they still will be relying on shooters such as Muller, Brett Lubanski, Alex Frere, Chris Blessing and Jesse Ramsey.
“We have to use everything we have in the tank against Fairbanks, because they’re obviously a top team the last few years,” Lubanski said. “We have to have a good week at practice, watch videos and use that winning streak to bolster us.”
Lubanski leads the team this year with 67 points scored — 17 of those goals and 50 assists.
“We need to just try and channel all this confidence into the games,” he said. “Fairbanks is tough to play, and we haven’t had much success against them, so anything we can bring with us will help.
“It’s important that every line of ours matches up well against theirs, and in order for us to win, it’s going to take a full 60 minutes of great defensive hockey and capitalizing on their very few mistakes that they make.”
The Bears have been focusing on figuring out a lineup that will be effective against the Ice Dogs this week, and David has allowed them to use their experience to create a successful line.
“We’ve been letting them structure practices so they decide which read is their most efficient read at times, breaking out of the zone, which option makes the most sense right now, and just letting them work through those things,” David said. “Our forecheck has been pretty successful the last few games, and we’ve really pressured the puck all over the ice.”
This season, Kenai River is 4-8 against Fairbanks, but with the recent momentum and grit the team has shown, perhaps the Bears can pull off an upset.
“Momentum will only get you so far, the rest has to be an understanding of how we need to play,” David said. “The last couple weeks, I’ve said it’s all about the energy and effort that you put forth, but now that’s only a piece of the puzzle, because now everyone’s going to have energy and put forth effort, so it literally comes down to who has the better team, and who does what their coaches think is the correct thing to do, who plays the team game and who gets lucky.”