After clinching his eighth and final Class 3A state basketball crown with Nikiski in 2006, firmly putting him up there with the best basketball coaches in the history of the state, Ward Romans credited not jumpers, not game film, but faith.
“This year came down to the same thing it does every year. The final ingredient was faith,” Romans said.
The Kenai River Brown Bears will look to use that crucial ingredient in the North American Hockey League West Division playoff series that continues today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The best-of-five series is currently tied at 1.
When Romans spoke of faith and basketball, he was speaking of total confidence in teammates. Players can close out harder on a shooter, or more aggressively attempt a steal, if they know a teammate will be there to cover in the event of getting beat.
The Brown Bears have been using a similar strategy to dominate the sports center of late, ending the season on a 7-1 run on home ice to finish with a home record of 17-12-1 and a franchise record for home wins.
The strong finish at home did not come against patsies. Kenai River went 2-0 against Fairbanks and 3-0 against the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, just two of six teams to get 80 points in the NAHL regular season.
The Bears are 6-2 at the sports center against the Ice Dogs this season, with three two-game sweeps. A two-game sweep this weekend puts the organization in the West Division finals for the first time.
Of course, Kenai River was 2-6 at the Big Dipper Ice Arena and lost the first game of the series there before winning 2-1 Saturday for the first playoff win in franchise history. The teams are 9-9 against each other this season, so any margin of victory is clearly razor-thin.
“As Fairbanks knows, we went in there wanting to really give it our all and stole a game,” Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. “They played well and we were able to beat them by a goal.
“We’re not expecting anything less than a complete battle.”
The Bears will lean on a new system implemented by David this season.
Running down the center of any hockey rink is a rectangle created by eight faceoff dots. In a nutshell, Kenai River has gotten a lot more aggressive this year challenging the opposition when the puck is outside those dots, particularly when players are outside the four dots in the neutral zone.
“Our rink is so big, the four neutral zone dots, the outside dots, that’s no man’s land, they’re not scoring out there,” Kenai River defenseman Ryan Walker said. “If they beat us outside the dots area, it doesn’t really matter.”
Well, it could matter if a teammate wasn’t there in support. The thing that makes the system work is always having a teammate there in support, and having confidence the teammate is going to put forth the effort to make that happen.
“That is the crucial part,” Kenai River captain Zac Lazzaro said. “I know the other four guys on the ice will be there to back me up. That’s huge.”
The system also only works if players know when not to get beat. They should never get beat inside the dots, forcing everything outside. And the area from behind the goal to the two defensive zone dots is the five-alarm fire area, the “house” that must be defended at all costs.
“We never stop teaching support techniques,” David said. “To make it real simple, if there’s a puck there and a guy is on it, I want to support him.”
David said having the confidence to challenge a skilled team like Fairbanks all over the ice is key. The Ice Dogs are tied for second in the league for the most Division I commitments.
What happens if such players are given a ton of time and space?
“It’s game over,” David said. “When you are playing speed and skill guys, you have to take away time and space.”
David said his strategy is partly informed by a book he read by the Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has led New England to three Super Bowl crowns.
“The main thing he says is that the Patriots focus not on a team’s weaknesses, but on a team’s strengths,” David said. “They take away a team’s strengths and that maybe parallels what we’re trying to do.”
David also calmed the fears of Brown Bears fans frustratingly reading this article — an article that supposedly gives away the big secret to Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart.
“This is a simple concept,” David said. “It’s no secret. It has just worked with this team because of the chemistry, because the team speed might be a little faster, and because the compete level is high.”
Lazzaro echoed that comment.
“Everybody has to buy in and compete hard in the system Oliver implements,” Lazzaro said. “In years past, the systems were there, but the total team buy-in and competing wasn’t always there.
“This year, this group loves getting after it.”
So far Fairbanks, which plays on one of the smallest ice surfaces in the league, has had trouble cracking the code at the sports center, which is the biggest surface in the league.
“Everything is just so much more spaced out on our ice,” Walker said. “I think other teams sometimes just get lost out there. We practice there all the time.”
But David and the Bears recognize the Ice Dogs are in an unusual and uncomfortable position, and like anything else in such a state, will do whatever it takes to get out of said position.
The last time the Ice Dogs lost a first-round playoff game was in 2008, when they still cruised to a 3-1 series victory. In 2011 and 2012, Fairbanks romped through rounds one and two of the West Division playoffs, losing a total of just one game.
“Fairbanks can win here, so this should be exciting,” David said.
While the Bears have been keeping up with the Dogs on the ice, Fairbanks is still the clear champion in the stands. The Ice Dogs drew sellout crowds of 2,242 to each game last weekend, while Kenai River’s playoff attendance record is 1,098.
“I think our crowd will be a huge factor,” Walker said. “We’ve never had two playoff games at home. I’ve talked to some of their players and they hate our fans. They think they are loud and obnoxious.”
Notes: Bryan Hodges, who was hurt in the final game of the regular season, remains the only player out due to injury for the Bears. … New sponsor SLP Alaska will provide white T-shirts to the first 250 fans through the door, to help toward creating a “whiteout” in the stands. … The volunteers that make the Brown Bears organization possible will be honored during Friday’s game. ... In the other West Division series, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild beat the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters 4-2 to even that series at 2.