After nearly a month break, the Kenai River Brown Bears resume North American Hockey League action tonight for the first of a three-game series at Fairbanks.
The last game for the Brownies (7-26-2) before the hiatus was against the Ice Dogs (24-12-1) in a Dec. 19 contest that featured 154 total penalty minutes. Kenai, which sits in fourth place in the West Division, had 16 infractions for 81 minutes and the Ice Dogs, currently in second in the West, committed 17 infractions for 73 minutes.
Most of those came during a first-period line brawl. While on the power play, Fairbanks' six players, their goaltender included, engaged Kenai River's four penalty killers, said Brown Bears head coach Oliver David.
With the rest of his team already tied up with a man, Fairbanks' Will Aide, who leads his team with 128 penalty minutes, dropped the gloves with goaltender Mike Martin. Ice Dogs goalie Joe Phillippi joined Aide in his scrap with Martin, David said.
Martin was given a game ejection whereas Phillippi received two minutes for crossing the red line.
Six members of each team were penalized following the fight, though, only five Brown Bears were on the ice. Clayton Glick, who was not on the ice, received a fighting major and game misconduct at the fault of the referees, David said.
Fairbanks leads the West with 1,003 penalty minutes and is fourth overall in the NAHL.
As the Bears head into their series with the Dogs, David said his team is focused on playing the game. If it's a one-goal game entering the third period, Fairbanks won't be able to resort to that type of play, David said.
Two new Brown Bears could see action against the Ice Dogs. Stay-at-home blue liner Chris Rial came to Kenai from NAHL Central Division Wichita Falls. He's 6-foot-5 and has an offensive upside, David said.
"He will probably help us on one of our power play units as well," David added.
Rial, 19, tallied four points and an even plus-minus rating through 20 games with Wichita this season.
The Brown Bears had a void to fill on the blue line after Branden Fisher was traded to the Tri-City Storm, a Nebraska-based United States Hockey League Tier 1 Junior A team. The NAHL is a Tier 2 Junior A league.
Tri-City selected Fisher in the fourth round of the 2009 USHL Futures Draft. He was to join the team for the 2010-11 season, but was called up early. Fisher joined the Storm a week and a half ago.
"I was really excited," Fisher said of his initial reaction to Tri-City's call in an interview Wednesday via cell phone. "It's a whole other experience for me now."
Fisher, a 16-year-old Soldotna High School product, said the game speed is faster than the NAHL and players take more time to make more-skilled plays.
"Everyone is just so talented up there," he said. "They make quick, good decisions."
Fisher, who has hopes of playing NCAA Division I college hockey, will stay with Tri-City for the remainder of this season.
As one of the younger players in the USHL, Fisher said some time will be needed to adjust to the Tier 1 level.
"I feel like I have to work a lot harder to keep up with these guys," he said.
Though he's skating with some players 4 years older than him who have been competing at the USHL level for some time, Fisher said he's looking forward to the challenge ahead of him. He played in his first game Sunday, and knows he can play at this level.
"I think I'm keeping up pretty well with these guys," he said.
The Bears also lost defenseman Jake Musselman. He returned home to Colorado to focus on academics as he prepares for his acceptance at the U.S. Air Force Academy, David said.
Though nothing is official at this point, Musselman is poised to become the first Brown Bear to play DI college hockey.
Musselman remains active on Kenai's roster and could play later this season and/or in the playoffs.
Newcomer Shane Halaas may also see playing time in the Fairbanks series.
Halaas, 18, came from the Flint (Mich.) Generals, a Tier 3 Junior A squad. David said Halaas turned down a collegiate football scholarship to pursue his first love of hockey.
"He's a very tough kid," David said. "He should be able to wreak some havoc in and around the net."
Goaltender Jimmy Hamby has been released from the team.
After returning home to visit with their families, team members reported to practice on Jan. 4.
"We've been working extensively on different areas of the game," David said.
With half a season of NAHL hockey experience, David said he's looking for his team to become more consistent in the second half.
David said his team's penalty killing has always been strong, but improvements were made on defensive zone coverage, on offense and in the goaltending position.
"I'm pretty excited for Thursday," David said.
David said he'll look for Johan Skinnars, who has six goals in five games with Kenai, to continue his scoring streak. He also said he's excited to see Braden Kinnebrew's second half of the season.
In net, newcomer Dainis Vasiljevs has been progressing well, David said.
"Dainis has been adjusting to the league pretty well," he said.
Though his team's record isn't reflective of a competitive team, David said Kenai River outworks other teams and isn't getting beat in their losses.
"We outplay teams quite often," he said. "At some point, you get some experience to go with the talent and some confidence to go with the talent. I only see us closing in on the scoreboard and having it tip in our favor."
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Brown Bears back from break: Kenai River goes to Fairbanks for 3-game series: Fisher moves to USHL
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