The Kenai River Brown Bears have their eye on two cups — the Era Alaska Cup and the Robertson Cup.
It increasingly looks like the road to both goes through Fairbanks.
The Era Alaska Cup is the season-long battle for supremacy between the Bears and Ice Dogs. The series is tied at 7 with just 7:30 p.m. games today and Saturday in Fairbanks to play.
The Robertson Cup is awarded to the North American Hockey League champion. Unless the Ice Dogs can figure out how to make up two points on the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the final two games of the season, the Bears and Dogs will face off in the first round of the playoffs. Home ice goes to the Dogs.
“Home-ice advantage is very important,” Brown Bears assistant Nick Shackford said. “It’s a very difficult building to play in. In terms of atmosphere, I would say that and Amarillo are the toughest places to play in the league.”
Fairbanks (38-16-4) is 5-1 on home ice against the Bears, and has won the last five straight. Kenai River is 6-2 at the Soldotna Sports Center against the Dogs, including a sweep last weekend.
One piece of the puzzle the Bears haven’t put on the ice in Fairbanks yet is goalie Marcus Zelzer, who was acquired in a midseason trade. Zelzer went 6-1-2 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .938 save percentage before injuring his knee in a shootout win over Fairbanks at the sports center on Feb. 9.
He will be back in action this weekend.
“That’s good news,” Shackford said. “We can try and get him ready for the playoffs. Get him seeing the puck and get his confidence in.”
Winning in Fairbanks is seemingly the only thing the Bears haven’t been able to accomplish in the final third of the season.
Kenai River (28-24-6) is closing the season on a 14-5-2 kick, including winning its last five games. Those games came against Fairbanks and Wenatchee, just two of six teams to collect 80 points in the standings.
Shackford said the team decided to get rookies experience early so the team could excel late.
“There’s been some rough times this year, but we’ve battled through them,” he said. “We’ve said from the beginning we’re going to lose early to win late.
“We still have the playoffs. That’s the most important thing we want to win.”
Four of the Bears’ top six point scorers — Matt Seidel, Alex Jackstadt, Alec Butcher and Albin Karlsson — are in their first year in the NAHL.
“The adjustment from Triple A or high school to Junior A hockey, in my opinion, is one of the hardest for a hockey player,” Shackford said. “It’s when you go from boys hockey to man’s hockey.
“These kids have developed a tremendous amount.”
Shackford said the veterans, led by captain Zac Lazzaro, have helped mold the young team.
“We have had great chemistry, and that’s a credit to the captains and veterans,” Shackford said. “They’ve done a great job.”
Notes: Former Brown Bears player Andrej Sustr has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The signing was confirmed by the Lightning on Thursday.
The 22-year-old Czech defenseman, who is 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, had just completed his third season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He had nine goals, 25 points and 53 penalty minutes in 39 games this season. He is listed as No. 62 on the Lightning roster. He is the first former Brown Bears player to sign an NHL contract.
Sustr played in 36 games for the Bears in the 2008-09 season. He had a goal and seven assists, while taking 58 penalty minutes.
He moved to the Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms of the USHL the next season before signing with Nebraska-Omaha.