It’s the Ice Dogs vs. the underdogs.
History, both current and ancient, has the Fairbanks Ice Dogs as the favorites in a first-round, best-of-five playoff series that opens today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Fairbanks.
Game 3 and Game 4, if necessary, are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Game 5 would be April 12 in Fairbanks.
“Obviously, they are a good team and we have the underdog mind-set,” Kenai River forward Alec Butcher said. “Fairbanks is not the easiest place to play.
“It’s a rough environment. We have to control our emotions and take the crowd factor out by scoring crucial goals that quiet the fans.”
The Bears have made the playoffs six times in seven years as a franchise and have yet to win a playoff series. This is the fifth time Kenai River has faced Fairbanks in the first round of the playoffs.
The Ice Dogs swept the first three series from the Bears, then squeaked out a 3-2 win last season.
But last season the teams were 8-8 against each other. This season, the Dogs have rolled up a 13-3 advantage against the Brown Bears, including 5-1 and 7-3 triumphs in Fairbanks last weekend.
The Big Dipper Ice Arena is much smaller than the Olympic-sized sheet at Soldotna’s sports complex.
The Bears did not adjust well last weekend.
“I don’t think we had urgency with the puck,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “We need to know what we’re going to do with the puck before we get it, and when we do create turnovers, know what our options are.
“We spent time this week working on creating that urgency with certain types of drills.”
The Bears also arrived in Fairbanks on Thursday night, so they will get to skate the Dipper before the game. Normally, Kenai River arrives in Fairbanks the day of the game.
Captain Jake Davidson said that should help with the adjustment.
“We’re not used to having so little time,” he said. “There’s a split second less, so seams for passes and holes to shoot at close quicker.
“Obviously, they have a great fan base but that building will get our guys going, too.”
The Ice Dogs (45-14-1) have the best record in the North American Hockey League and will have home ice as long as they are in the Robertson Cup playoffs. They scored the most goals in the league and have three veterans from a 2011 run to the Robertson Cup.
The Bears (28-24-8) were able to make the playoffs despite the disadvantage of playing Fairbanks 16 times and have the NAHL’s scoring champ in Butcher. Kenai River lost eight games by three or more goals this season. Seven of those lopsided losses came to Fairbanks.
“It’s no secret who’s the favorite and who’s the underdog,” Beauparlant said. “It’s been pretty even the last six games or so.
“I think we need to play our style of game, and I know Fairbanks will play their style, and it’s going to be fun to be a part of an intense series.”
The Bears lost the first seven games to Fairbanks this season, and have gone 3-6 since then.
“We just need to play a full game, I feel,” Davidson said. “There are times within the game when we aren’t playing as a unit and we get away from the team game.
“If we can stay together for 60 minutes, and we can do that, I feel we’re more likely to like the results.”
Davidson, Conor Deal and Vince Stefan will try and avoid having their seasons ended by Fairbanks for the third straight year.
“Jake, Vinny and I carry three years of experience, and a lot of guys carry two years,” Deal said. “They know it’s the small details that allow us to beat Fairbanks.
“We’re going to teach the younger guys what it takes in the playoffs. This is probably one of our best years. This is probably one of the most talented teams I’ve been on.”
Fairbanks is 11-0 when scoring first against Kenai River this season, while the Bears are 3-1-1 when drawing first blood.
Finishing chances, especially early, will be crucial against the Dogs.
“You need to capitalize on good opportunities, especially in playoff hockey when teams are playing much better defense and there are less chances than in a regular season game,” Davidson said.
As if the fact that the teams played 21 times last season and 16 so far this season isn’t enough, familiarity runs deeper than that.
Beauparlant was an Ice Dogs assistant for the last three years, and Bears forward Jacob Wolter and Ice Dogs forward Colton Wolter are twin brothers. Dogs defenseman Jake Bushey and Bears defenseman Ben Campbell were swapped for each other this season.
“Once the game is over, we still have friends on the other team, but when the puck drops we’re not friends,” Butcher said. “The Wolter brothers probably go at it the hardest.”