If there is a team that knows what a big game in the Big Dipper Ice Arena is like, that team is the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The Bears will call on all of that experience Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. when they face the host Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a deciding Game 5 of a first-round North American Hockey League series.
“We know what it is like up there,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “We’ve had some success. Ultimately, we need to do it one more time.
“It’s going to take a great team effort for 60-plus minutes to achieve our goal of moving on.”
As usual, 2,242 fans will be in attendance at the Dipper, where seating allows them to pack in around the ice. And the fans should be particularly rambunctious, because they certainly don’t want to see the Dogs lose to their Alaska rival in a year when Fairbanks has home ice advantage throughout the Robertson Cup playoffs.
The Ice Dogs posted that top NAHL regular-season record partially by dominating at home, where they finished 24-5-1.
But the team that has had the most chance to get used to the Dipper is the Bears. Kenai River played there eight times in the regular season last year and three times in the playoffs.
This year, Kenai River also played at the Dipper eight times in the regular season, handing Fairbanks a loss and an overtime loss. The Brown Bears also are 1-1 in the playoffs at the Dipper this season.
Of particular relevance is a 3-2 loss the Bears suffered in Game 5 last season. Kenai River led 2-0 going into the third period of that game. The Bears return six players from that heartbreaker, while the Ice Dogs return 10.
But Beauparlant said the team isn’t necessarily focused on settling a score from last year.
“I haven’t heard any of that talk around the locker room,” the coach said. “The focus is on this year. Yes, we have experience and guys that have been through Game 5, but they do too. I don’t think it’s an advantage either way.”
Scoring first and special teams have told the story of the series so far. In each game, the team that has scored first and had the most power-play goals has won. Fairbanks won Games 1 and 3, while Kenai River took Games 2 and 4.
“We need to compete at the level we did in Games 2 and 4,” Beauparlant said. “If we compete at the level we did in Games 1 and 3, we don’t give ourselves as much of a chance.
“We have to get off to a good start moving our feet and creating our own energy and opportunities early.”
The Bears will have a full lineup, getting defenseman Tyler Andrews back from a two-game suspension for a hit in Game 2 on Tayler Munson, the Dogs’ leading scorer. Munson still has not played since the hit. Kyle Lee, who tied for four in points during the regular season, also has been out for Fairbanks.
“We have to be prepared as if both are going to play,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears won Game 4 4-3 on Wednesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex by giving Kris Oldham his first playoff start in the net. Oldham responded by getting the franchise its first victory in a playoff elimination game in six tries.
Beauparlant was not about to tip his hand as to who will play Saturday.
“We have confidence in both goaltenders to win the hockey game,” he said.
Beauparlant said he was grateful to the fans for showing up and making noise despite the fact that the games were midweek.
“That was really telling as to how far we have come as an organization,” he said. “The support the community has for the program is incredible.
“The players love loud crowds, and it was definitely loud last night.”
The Bears are 0-5 all-time in playoff series, including 0-4 against the Ice Dogs, perennial Robertson Cup contenders who won it all in 2011 with Beauparlant on the bench as an assistant.
In order to alter that trend, the Bears will have to beat the Ice Dogs for a third time in five playoff games after beating them just three times in 16 regular-season games.
Beauparlant has said the best players on a team have to be the best players in order to win hockey games, and that has been the case so far in the playoffs.
The three Bears with Division I commitments are leading the team. Alec Butcher has three goals and two assists, Albin Karlsson has three goals and an assist, and Sebastian Fuchs has three assists.
For the Dogs, Ross Olsson has three goals, while Duggie Lagrone and Jacob Hetz have four assists apiece.
“It’s a great challenge for our team and it’s always a fun place to play,” Beauparlant said. “It’s exciting to be in the position that both teams are in, with an opportunity to move to the next round.”