With 12 games left in the North American Hockey League season, the Kenai River Brown Bears are sitting comfortably in the third spot in the West Division standings.
Of course, the team isn’t just settling in and waiting for the postseason, which is a berth that they had automatically clinched before the season even began.
The next 10 games are all home events, and six of the Bears’ final 12 are with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. But more importantly, all of them are against divisional opponents.
“The last month going into the playoffs is the pivotal point of season,” said assistant coach Nick Shackford. “The guys that were here during the prospect tourney had a light week, they didn’t do much. It was good to get time off because it’s a long season, and getting a little time off, the guys are fresh, they’re not sick, and this is like the first time ever they’re not sick or hurt. The ultimate goal is get the momentum going into the playoffs.
“We’re lucky to have a great schedule to end the season.”
Currently, Kenai River is tied with Fairbanks 5-5 in the Era Alaska Cup, the season-long battle between the two teams. Three weeks ago, Kenai River played host to the Ice Dogs and swept Fairbanks at home, boosting their lead in the season series and staying perfect against Fairbanks on home ice.
However, a week after that, the Bears got a taste of their own medicine, traveling up to Fairbanks and suffering a sweep to the Dogs.
Today and Saturday, the Ice Dogs are back in town and will face the Bears at the Soldotna Sports Center. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. on both days.
The Bears end their season with two road games in Fairbanks, which could prove to be the difference in the Era Alaska Cup.
Another thing that remains to be seen is whether goalie Marcus Zelzer will be healthy enough to play. Zelzer has played an integral role in the net and was in goal during a six-game winning stretch a month ago, but sustained a leg injury early in the third period of a Feb. 9 matchup with Fairbanks.
Shackford said that Zelzer’s current condition is day-to-day, but he and head coach Oliver David will have a clearer picture on Friday on whether he plays this weekend.
“I don’t personally know his status right now, but we’ll know (Friday) morning in the skate-around,” Shackford said. “He’ll definitely be back for the playoffs.”
When Kenai River scored two wins against Fairbanks three weeks ago, the Bears outscored the Ice Dogs 6-3 in the two games with Zelzer in goal, but were outscored 9-1 in two games a week later in the Golden Heart City. Zelzer was out due to injury that weekend, with Evan McCarthy in goal.
Another record the Bears would like to top is their win mark. Last season, Kenai River ended the regular season with a 31-25-4 record, which was the most wins ever for the Bears — 31 wins in a 60-game schedule. This year, they currently stand with a 21-21-6 record. To top it, the Bears will have to win 11 of their final 12 games.
“To get 10 wins is going to be pretty difficult, but it could happen, and would be great,” Shackford said. “But the most important thing is for our guys to be mastering what we’ve been teaching the whole year, and really blossoming into that and grasping it.
“The league this year is probably the best it’s been in a long time, and our goal is to be playing our best hockey going to the playoffs.”
It’s clear that the coaches are pleased with how the Bears are rounding into shape, as four players from the team recently made the trip to Troy, Mich., to showcase their skills in the Top Prospects tournament, playing with other talented NAHL players on the Frontier team.
In three games played at the Top Prospects tournament, captain Zac Lazzaro notched three goals (on nine shots) and two assists for the Frontier team, Brad Duwe had two goals and an assist, and co-captain Ryan Walker had three assists. Lazzaro’s five total points put him in a group of three other players that had that total, and under only two players that led with six points.
“Based on what Oliver told me, they did very well,” Shackford said. “It’s very important during this month to play our best. It’s the last month of the season, and as coaches we need to observe and see what our opposition is doing. We’re preparing for what we’ll face in playoffs.”