Last weekend, the Kenai River helped put the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in first place in the North American Hockey League West Division.
This weekend, the Bears can help knock the Dogs out of first in the division.
The Dogs went into last weekend three points behind the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild for pole position in the West Division playoffs. Fairbanks took two of three from the last-place Fresno (Calif.) Monsters, but that was good enough to go in first by one point due to the Bears’ three-game sweep of the Wild at the Soldotna Sports Center.
All four of the games Fairbanks has left in the regular season are against the Bears — today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the sports center, then two more the following weekend in Fairbanks. The Wild concludes the season with four against the Monsters.
Locked in at No. 3 in the division, Kenai River (26-24-6) gets the second-place team in the playoffs.
The Bears head into the series playing their best hockey of the season.
“I think we’re playing really well right now as a whole team,” Kenai River assistant captain Jake Davidson said. “Everyone is getting incorporated and everyone is clicking right now.”
Since getting over a nasty battle with the injury bug at midseason, the Bears have piled up points at the rate of a top-tier team in the league. Kenai River has 26 points in its last 19 games. If the Bears had accumulated points at that rate throughout the season, only five teams in the league would have more points.
But Davidson said the top five teams in the league — and with 79 and 78 points, respectively, Fairbanks and Wenatchee fit that bill — are there because they have had success over an entire season, not just for 19 games.
“It’s a consistency thing, and it’s something we’re learning how to do,” Davidson said.
The final four games against the Ice Dogs will test that consistency. Fairbanks is one of the model franchises in the league and is rounding into its usual Robertson Cup-chasing form, having won nine of its last 10 games. This week, Max Birkinbine became the ninth Ice Dogs player to get a Division I commitment, signing up for Air Force Academy. Seven of those Division I players will be on the roster to face the Bears this weekend.
Even on this current 19-game run of success, the Bears are 2-4 against their longtime nemesis. Fairbanks leads the Era Alaska Cup, the season-long battle for supremacy between the teams, 7-5 thanks to winning the last four against Kenai River.
“They’re a team with a lot of speed, and a lot of guys who are offensive threats,” Davidson said. “I think we actually match up pretty well against them. They are always exciting games.
“Sometimes we win, sometimes they win. It depends who executes better that night.”
The defensemen have been executing on both ends of the ice as Kenai River has won five of its last six games. The Bears have given up 14 goals during that time, while defensemen have been in on 19 of the 25 goals scored.
“I think we’ve played some good games and some of the best games we’ve played,” Davidson said of the defensemen. “But it’s not just us. The forwards are playing well and the goalies are playing well. Everyone on the team is doing his job.”
Davidson leads the defensemen in points with 25, and he has seven points in his last eight games. Vince Stefan also has seven points in eight games since returning from injury on March 1.
“Stefan has got a heavy shot and a good shot,” Kenai River assistant coach Nick Shackford said. “His shooting capability and shooting selection is best on the team in terms of defensemen.
“Whenever you get a guy like that back, you can generate a lot more offense.”
Shackford was quick to point out that points aren’t the main calling card of defensemen, though.
“The biggest point in being a defensemen is defending,” he said. “In the first half of the year, there was some inconsistent play. In the second half, they have gotten better and better.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way they are playing.”
Shackford said veteran Ryan Walker has become a very consistent defender. He also said rookie Carson Vance, 17, has adjusted to the league and has played much better since Christmas break.
The assistant also said Jake Bushey and Judd Loewenstein have raised their game, with Loewenstein potting his first goal of the year in the sweep of Wenatchee.
“Loewenstein has picked up his game a huge notch and a lot of it for him is his confidence,” Shackford said. “He’s been beating guys up — he’s been doing everything. He’s earned a spot in the lineup with his play.”
The defensive corps is rounded out by Quinton Neville, who Shackford said the team is trying to develop for next season.
“I think we’re all playing more consistent is the way I’d put it,” Davidson said. “We’re not as up and down throughout the game.”
Bears notes: Shackford said goalie Marcus Zelzer, who is 6-1-2 with a .938 save percentage, remains day-to-day with a knee injury. … The Alaska Jr. Aces U-18 Tier 1 team, an affiliate team of the Bears, has won the Pacific District Tournament and qualified for nationals. The team includes Austin Arnold, who played five games for the Bears this year, picking up two points and coming in plus-2.