Brown Bears return to home ice: Soldotna product Fisher joins Kenai River for playoff run

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

Don't complain about winter on the Kenai Peninsula to Brett Lubanski or any of his teammates.

The Kenai River Brown Bears are simply glad to be home.

Kenai River returns to the Soldotna Sports Center for its lone homestand over a span of 68 calendar days, hosting the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer at 7:05 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

"It's going to be huge," said Lubanski, the team captain. "We're looking for a big start to the second half of the season, to climb up the standings."

There will be two new players when the Bears take the ice. Kenai River acquired two hefty defensemen over the break, picking up 6-foot-1, 175-pound Branden Fisher from the Tri-City Storm and 6-3, 215-pound Joe Blake from the Ice Dogs.

Fisher is a 17-year-old product of Soldotna who played 25 games with the Bears last season before he was traded to the Storm.

"We're incredibly lucky to have him," David said. "He's a great talent."

Blake, meanwhile, is no stranger to the Bears, having played this season in the same division.

Andrew Huckleby, a defensman from Michigan, and seldom-used Christian Johnson were released to clear space on the 23-man roster.

Coach Oliver David said Fisher and Blake were too good to pass up, giving the Bears more strength on the back line. The acquisitions, he added, will create competition for playing time, which will be at a premium as the season progresses.

"We need to dress and compete with the guys who are producing," David said. "It's getting more cutthroat in the second half of the season. It's, 'No more Mr. Nice Guy,' so to speak. It's about making a strong push to the playoffs."

Today's contest is the Bears' first on home ice since a Nov. 27 loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, while Saturday's will be the last until Feb. 4. With a two-week break for the holidays sandwiched between 13 road outings in a 16-game stretch, the Bears are happy to play before a friendly crowd.

The Bears (15-13-3, 33 points) are enjoying their most successful season in franchise history, having already eclipsed their previous single-season-best win mark of 14.

They strung together franchise-best winning streaks of four games on two separate occasions and haven't lost more than three straight. Forward Doug Beck, who leads the team with 20 goals and also has 15 assists, is on pace to break the single-season scoring record.

And although they are in fourth place in the North American Hockey League West Division standings and trail first-place Fairbanks by 15 points, second-place Alaska by 12 and the third-place Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild by nine, the Bears would reach the postseason if it started today. The top four teams in each division qualify.

Kenai River has played a division-low 31 games -- the Ice Dogs have played 35 and the Avs 37 -- meaning there will be opportunities to make headway in the standings. All NAHL squads play 58 regular-season contests.

"We have been a competitive team in the toughest division in the league," David said. "We had a strong first half, and we are looking to have a strong second have and reach the playoffs."

David said the squad hopes to secure three or four points this weekend, meaning at the least it must win once and earn another point with an overtime loss.

The Bears have defeated the Avs (22-14-1, 45 points) five times in nine tries this season and outscored them 32-24. Some of Kenai River's most competitive games have been against Alaska, including three decided by one goal.

The squads face off just twice more after this series, the other two games being in Palmer.

Despite the fact nine road games loom and the team trails three squads in the standings, the second-year coach emphasized this is just three of many games remaining.

"Three wins won't make our season and three losses won't break our season," David said.

It was a busy but short week of practice for the Bears, who haven't played since Dec. 18. The squad practiced twice-daily Monday and Tuesday before a light workout Wednesday.

What can fans expect from the Bears in their only home series in more than two months, coming off a long break and with a long road trip on the horizon?

"I'm hoping the guys can rise to the occasion and the winter-break blues don't haunt us too much," David said. "It's either going to motivate them and get their body back to what they are used to, or they are going to run out of gas. I'm hoping they get after it."

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