The battle each year for the Alaska ERA Cup between the Kenai River Brown Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs always presents an entertaining challenge, and the rivalry involved with that series will receive a healthy dose of intensity this weekend at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
In fact, the battle for supremacy between the two teams won’t get a reprieve until mid-December.
The Brown Bears (13-9-2) and Ice Dogs (16-7) play two games this weekend, both tipping off at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at the Sports Complex. Kenai River then travels up to Fairbanks for two games on Dec. 6 and 7, before a final round with Fairbanks back in Soldotna again for two games on Dec. 13 and 14.
If former Fairbanks assistant and first-year Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant hopes to guide his team to more wins, they will need to clean up a few areas, as well as hope for better luck.
“The focus this week has been about getting better,” said Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant. “We always want to make sure every day in practice we’re focused and ready and preparing for next weekend.”
The six-game stretch with Fairbanks could determine this year’s ERA Cup, an honor that Kenai River has never had, although they tied with Fairbanks last year with eight wins apiece. The Ice Dogs won the Cup due to more points scored in those 16 games, since one of their losses came in an overtime finish.
“It’s like a six-game series, and we can’t get too high or too low,” Beauparlant said. “We need to play hard Friday night, hopefully win Friday and regroup for Saturday.”
Winning is important not only for obvious reasons, but because the distance between the Bears and Ice Dogs in the Midwestern division is four points, which coincidentally is two wins’ worth. The Bears hold 28 points, behind the 32 that Fairbanks has.
The Bears are also in danger of being surpassed by the fourth-place team of Coulee Region (Wis.), who are a mere two points behind Kenai River, and can take third with wins over fellow in-state rivals Janesville this weekend. If that happens, the Bears will be left clinging to the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwestern division.
“It’s over 20 days or so, and we know and understand the importance of the series on both sides,” Beauparlant said. “They’re going to be prepared.”
What makes the Ice Dogs even more dangerous is the momentum they hold. The team is on a six-game winning streak, currently the longest in the league. Not only that, but in every one of those victories, Fairbanks’ opponent scored exactly one goal. So getting that second goal in each game will go a long way in bucking that trend.
The Bears will need to find the kind of magic that propelled them to an eight-game winning streak through much of October, and will need to avoid the kind of slump they have been in in recent weeks.
“The biggest thing is you got to play a full game against them,” Beauparlant said. “If we’re not playing our game for 60 minutes and get caught up in extra-curricular activities, we lose focus. We fell like we can win any game in the league when we’re focused.”
Kenai River has lost eight of its last nine games, and are coming off a three-game weekend series with one of the leading teams in the North American Hockey League — the Minnesota Wilderness — that saw them win the first game, but drop the final two. In Saturday night’s 2-0 loss, the third period looked more like a Mixed Martial Arts fight than a hockey game. With five minutes left, immediately following a faceoff in neutral ice, three separate scuffles broke out.
Beauparlant said on Saturday night that adrenaline is expected to be high after three straight nights of action, so the throwdowns were not a surprise.
Minnesota’s goalie, Kasimir Kaskisuo, is the top goalie in the league, giving up an average of 1.04 goals a game, and the Finn certainly gave the Bears a challenge last weekend.
The problem is, it will not get much easier this week. Fairbanks goalie Kevin Alridge is ranked seventh in the league, giving up only 1.94 goals a game and holds a winning record of 11-6.
However, since Beauparlant came to Kenai River this season from Fairbanks, he knows Aldridge and his traits. He also knows many of the players that form Fairbanks’ top lines.
“They have the depth to have four lines,” Beauparlant said. “(Fairbanks coach) Trevor Stewart has done a good job of putting good line combinations together.”
Colton Wolter, Tayler Munson, Doug Rose, Brett Gervais and Lonnie Clary all contribute in different ways for Fairbanks, said Beauparlant, and his top line of Alec Butcher, Albin Karlsson and Sebastian Fuchs will need to match their opponents’ production.
Earlier this week, forwards Butcher and Jack Gessert were awarded honorable mentions for the NAHL Midwestern player of the week. Butcher assisted on the game winner of last Thursday’s 2-1 win against Minnesota, and racked up three assists in Friday’s 5-4 overtime loss. Gessert had three points (one goal, two assists) in Friday’s loss.
Butcher is also currently the third-highest scorer in the NAHL with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists).