In 2006, Oliver David was an assistant coach on a California Wave Under-16 Tier I AAA team that advanced through regionals at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks before winning a national championship in Rochester, NY.
The Dipper, which is actually a converted aircraft hangar, has not been nearly as kind to David since he took over the Kenai River Brown Bears early in the 2009 season after Marty Quarters was fired after a 2-9-1 start.
The Bears have trended upward since David became the franchise’s fourth coach right at the beginning of its third year of existence.
After winning 12 games in 2009-10, the Bears won 27 in 2010-11, 31 in 2011-12 and 29 against a tough schedule this year.
Through all that progress, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who the Bears face in a best-of-five North American Hockey League playoff series starting tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Dipper, have continued to be a fly in the ointment of the Brown Bears.
In six seasons, the Bears are 25-52-4 against Fairbanks in the regular season, while David is 21-30-3. The Bears are 8-30-2 at the Dipper as a franchise, while David is 6-20-1, with three of those wins coming in a three-game sweep on Jan. 14, 15 and 16, 2010.
The Ice Dogs, who have been to the Robertson Cup the last three years and won the league title in 2011, have really turned it on against the Bears in the playoffs.
The franchises met in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Fairbanks notched three-game sweeps each time, the biggest reason the Bears are 0-12 overall in the playoffs.
Fairbanks has outscored Kenai River 41-10 in the playoffs, and 29-4 in playoff games at the Dipper. In four playoff games at the Dipper, David’s squads have been outscored 18-2.
So what’s different this year?
“We’ve made progress all four years I’ve been here,” David said. “We’re now on a level playing field in terms of regular-season stats. They’re actually really close, almost too close to call.”
This year, for the first time, the Bears (29-25-6) and Dogs (39-17-4) battled in a season series for the Era Alaska Cup. In past years, the Cup wouldn’t have provided drama — the Bears had never gotten more than five wins in a season against the Dogs prior to this year.
But this year, the Cup came down to the final night. Both teams finished 8-8 against each other, but Fairbanks won the Cup because two of Kenai River’s victories came in shootouts.
The Bears were just 2-6 at the Dipper, but the flip side of that is a 6-2 mark at the Soldotna Sports Center, including three two-game sweeps.
Last season, the Bears were 4-8 against Fairbanks in the regular season and 1-5 at the Dipper.
“This year, we were a lot more even with them than we were last year during the regular season,” Kenai River captain Zac Lazzaro said. “Last year, we played with them all year, but we never felt in control over the course of a full weekend series.
“This year, we’ve shown we can control a full weekend series. We’ve shown consistent habits and physical play against them.”
Even though last year’s squad was swept out of the playoffs, David said the team played a key role in moving the franchise forward by setting a Bears record for wins with 31.
“All kinds of great things happened last year, and it gave us the ability to rebuild the team,” David said. “It’s another notch higher now. It’s a whole other level.”
David and Nick Shackford, the director of player personnel, loaded the team with talented NAHL rookies. The talent upgrade was apparent early on — Kenai River started 8-5-3 by being third in the league in goals scored at that point in the season.
Rookie Matt Seidel was second in the league with 22 points at the 16-game mark, and rookie Albin Karlsson had already pocketed a Division I scholarship.
But the league adjusted to the Bears and slowed down their offense. The Bears had five or more goals in six of the first 16 games. They would hit the five-goal mark just six more times in the remaining 44 games.
“We knew with the recruiting class we had coming in, we were going to be able to compete all year,” David said. “But we knew the only way we were going to be able to win and compete in a five-game playoff series is if we developed throughout the year.
“We really had to push everyone, win or lose. The effort has to be there every night, so the muscle memory and habits become second nature.”
David drove that point home in mid-January, at the tail end of a five-game losing streak in which the Bears outshot the opponent in every game. The coach made the players skate extra after a 3-2 loss to the Janesville (Wis.) Jets, and the Bears have played like one of the league’s top teams ever since.
Kenai River closed the season on a 15-6-2 kick. And that kick didn’t come against patsies. Sixteen of those games came against Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, just two of six teams in the league to collect at least 80 points in the standings.
“I think all of the pieces have been in place, or at least in the room, all season,” Lazzaro said. “I think it all started falling together. That comes from a full season of hard work, practice and coach preaching habits.
“It’s a matter of everyone buying in.”
But the regular season is one thing, the playoffs another. Last season, the Bears had all the momentum in the world after getting nine points in their final five games to secure a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
All that went out the window when Fairbanks notched 3-0 and 4-0 wins at the Dipper to start the playoffs.
This season, the Bears didn’t have to fight in the regular season to get in the playoffs. They automatically qualified because there are just four teams in the West Division. But the Bears didn’t back into the playoffs either, finishing a franchise-best third in the West Division.
“Right out of the gate, for the third year in a row, we have two games in 24 hours in Fairbanks,” David said. “There’s not a lot of time to make corrections. There’s not a lot of time to regain your footing.
“We’ve got to come out firing right away and get the upper hand.”
While the Brown Bears rookies had a whole season to adjust to the NAHL, they will have no similar adjustment period for the playoffs. The only returners from last year’s squad are forwards Lazzaro, Chris Nuth and Conor Deal; and defensemen Ryan Walker, Jake Davidson and Vince Stefan. Forward Brad Duwe sat out last year, but he has previous playoff experience with the Bears.
Another key player with playoff experience is goalie Marcus Zelzer, who is in his third year in the league and has been to the playoffs once.
Zelzer arrived this season in a trade and went 6-2-2 with a 1.84 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. He led the Bears on a nine-game point streak before getting injured Feb. 9 against Fairbanks.
The Bears lost their next four after that injury, but Evan McCarthy steadied the ship in goal by winning seven of his last eight games.
Zelzer returned from injury in the last game of the season, losing 3-2 to Fairbanks.
David is not ready to name a starter for Friday night.
“Zelzer is primed and ready to play, very eager to play and well-rested in terms of games played,” David said. “McCarthy can come in at any minute and get the job done as well. He’s proven as much in March.”
Five of the top six scorers on the team — Seidel at 42 points, Alex Jackstadt at 39 points, Mikhail Bushinski at 33 points this season (not all for the Bears), Alec Butcher at 30 points and Karlsson at 29 points — have no NAHL playoff experience.
“I think the playoffs are a whole other animal,” David said. “I don’t know who we have in our room. I don’t know how icy their veins are, how deep the passion to win runs inside the guys that are new.
“I’ve seen them battle in the regular season when nothing’s on the line, and they’ve done a great job to become a highly competitive team.”
Lazzaro has his hunch about how the Bears will respond before the standard attendance of 2,242 today at the Dipper.
“I have a high confidence level in all the guys,” Lazzaro said. “I know when I step on the ice, I have 20 guys behind my back ready to battle. I’m really excited for the series.”
David acknowledged that excitement. He said one thing about poor records against top teams in past seasons was that it gave the Bears a chance to sneak up on teams in the playoffs. Kenai River’s hot finish means it will sneak up on no one this year.
“I hope that we haven’t hit a peak,” David said. “I hope these guys can really turn it on and bring it up a notch. They really want to, they’re really confident, and rightfully so.
“They definitely want to take Fairbanks down, and I’m not going to slow them down.”
Notes: The only injury question heading into the series is Bryan Hodges. It was initially thought that Hodges broke his collarbone in the final game of the season, but that turned out not to be the case. David is not sure if he will be ready for Friday.