When the North American Hockey League started way back in September, one thing was apparent. If the Kenai River Brown Bears were going to make the playoffs, they were going to have to find a way to beat the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
With just four games remaining in the regular season, the song remains the same. If the Brown Bears want to make the playoffs, they are going to have to figure out a way to beat the Ice Dogs.
Kenai River hosts Fairbanks today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, then wraps up the regular season the following Friday and Saturday in Fairbanks.
Kenai River (27-22-7) is currently one point out of a playoff spot. The Bears have 61 points, while the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill and Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild are tied for third in the Midwest Division with 62 points.
The Wild also have four games left, while the Chill have five games left.
“To give ourselves a chance we have to get at least one, but we believe it’s gonna take more than one win over the next four games,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “The guys realize this and they’re loose but focused.
“We’ve been a resilient team most of the year.”
The team that has given Kenai River the most trouble — by far — is the Ice Dogs.
The Bears are above .500 in regulation against 8 of the 13 opponents they’ve faced this season, and the worst they are against all but one opponent is a game below .500.
That leaves just Fairbanks. The Bears have a 2-9-1 record against their Alaska rival.
And unfortunately for the Bears, the Ice Dogs make up by far the biggest chunk of the schedule — 16 games out of 60.
“Obviously, playing Fairbanks 16 times doesn’t help,” defenseman Vince Stefan said. “Our season went well, other than playing Fairbanks.
“If you look at our record, other than Fairbanks, it’s a darn good record.”
The whole league has had problems with Fairbanks (42-13-1). The Ice Dogs can clinch the league’s best record with a victory today, giving themselves home-ice advantage throughout the Robertson Cup playoffs.
“They’re an experienced club with solid goaltending, and they’ve had our number all year,” said Beauparlant, an Ice Dogs’ assistant the past three years. “We just have to execute to the best of our abilities.
“When we’ve done the things that have worked for us, we’ve had success.”
The problem is there is no room for error in deviating from the game plan against Fairbanks. The Bears may get away with a few minutes of wandering against most teams, but not Fairbanks.
The Bears have been beaten by three goals or more six times this season, with five of those big losses coming to the Ice Dogs.
“That’s pretty much a direct result of us not playing as a unit, and playing as individuals,” defenseman Jake Davidson said. “It’s still not good to have bad habits, but against a team as good as Fairbanks, when you make a mistake, they’re going to make a play against it.”
Belief can be a flagging thing in a lopsided series, but forward Conor Deal said that is not a problem for the Bears.
“We can come out every night, and we can be the best team in the league,” he said. “It’s about mental preparation and the guys buying in.
“We have a team that can take us all the way to the Robertson Cup, and we all believe we can take a series against Fairbanks.”
The Bears have handed the Ice Dogs two of their six losses at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, but have failed to beat in the Ice Dogs in six tries in Soldotna.
After struggling with the big ice in Soldotna last season, the veteran group at Fairbanks has clearly figured it out this season.
“They’ve had a good game plan coming in,” Beauparlant said. “You can see it on video. They know what they want to do. Now it’s up to us to counter.”
Because the Bears have just these two homes games out of their final 13 games, a lot is being compressed into the weekend.
Kenai Peninsula Harley-Davidson jerseys will be auctioned off between periods Friday and Saturday. Friday, a Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association U-16 girls team going to nationals will be honored, while Saturday a state-champion KPHA PeeWee B team will be honored.
Also Saturday, billet families will be honored on the ice, while the grand opening of the Bears’ Den in the Short Stop on K-Beach Road will be held midday.
Then Sunday, the Feed the Bears dinner will take place from 4 to 7 p.m.
A lot of the players’ families are in town, as well.
The weekend is particularly special for Davidson, the captain, and Stefan and Deal, home alternate captains. The three are aging out after spending three years with the team.
Stefan has lived with Richard and Patty Eissler of Soldotna all three of his years. Stefan’s parents, Art and Jean Stefan, will be up from the Lower 48.
Stefan said he has come to love the area, and will definitely be back, especially to fish.
“I think it’s definitely good to have all of this on our table this weekend,” he said. “It’s always fun to play in front of parents, especially parents that don’t get to see games live.
“Hopefully, everything going on this weekend will get us riled up.”
Davidson has lived with Sam and Joe Halstead of Kenai for all of his three years. His mother and stepfather, Peggy and Terry Olivas, are up from the Lower 48 for the series.
Davidson said it was a bit intimidating moving so far from home at first, but he now considers the Peninsula his home away from home.
“The organization has definitely become a lot more professional,” Davidson said. “It’s grown with the help of coach Oliver (David) for some time, and now that’s enhanced with coach Beauparlant.”
Deal is the only three-year vet whose parents won’t be piling up frequent flier miles. Tim and Denise Deal just have to come down from Anchorage.
Deal, who has lived with billet parents Rick Van Hatten of Kenai, and Carmen and Chris Stephl of Soldotna, said the reputation of the Bears has grown immensely since he went through high school in Anchorage.
Deal, Stefan and Davidson are the only three Bears who had the experience of clinching a playoff berth during the final weekend of the season in 2012.
“This is basically like a repeat of my first year,” Deal said. “We stressed halfway through the season that we don’t want to be in this situation, but now we can’t worry about the big picture.
“We have to play a complete, full game on Friday and let everything else sort itself out.”