Four of the Kenai River Brown Bears top players found out firsthand that there's no rest for the best.
Immediately following a three-game sweep of Fairbanks, Doug Beck, Braden Kinnebrew, Brad Fusaro and Johan Skinnars headed for Ann Arbor, Mich., to play in the North American Hockey League Top Prospects Tournament.
The all-stars landed in Anchorage on Wednesday with one day to prepare for a two-game home series with the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla. The puck drops tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center. Fourth-place Kenai River (10-26-2) trails the third-place Avs (17-12-6) by 18 points in the NAHL West Division.
Each prospects team is made of up of top NAHL players from each of the four divisions. Head coaches submit players' names and the coach of each all-star team -- the head coach of the No. 1 team in each division -- selects the team. Depending on which place a team is in, a certain number of slots are reserved for its players on the prospects team. In Kenai River's case, four players earned spots on Team West.
Team Central defeated Team West 4-3 on Monday. Team West dropped a 5-2 game to Team North on Tuesday and lost 4-1 to Team South on Wednesday.
The three-day event is a chance for NAHL players to be scouted by professional teams and colleges, Brown Bears head coach Oliver David said. It's especially beneficial to Alaska-based players, as they don't receive as much exposure as teams in the Lower 48, he added.
"The entire arena is filled with scouts," David said. "It is absolutely one of the best opportunities for every team."
Relatively new to the team, Skinnars has six goals and five assists in eight games played with Kenai.
"He has been our top forward," David said. "Even though he's been with us a short time, it was pretty obvious that he was a talent and deserving of being nominated."
Skinnars joined the team in late November in a trade with Fairbanks for future considerations.
Fusaro, the team captain, has given so much to the team, David said the prospects tourney would give him a chance to showcase himself on a larger stage.
"He's been a consistent leader for us on and off the ice for the entire season," David said.
Fusaro scored a goal against the Team North on Tuesday.
Beck has tallied 17 points on the season and is tied as the team leader with Brett Lubanski. At the time of the nomination deadline, he was the outright points leader, making the decision a no-brainer, David said.
Beck recorded two points during the three prospects games.
Kinnebrew is a highly skilled, all-around defenseman, David said. He, like Fusaro, is in his final year of NAHL eligibility and deserving of a spot on Team West, David said.
David said deciding which names to submit for consideration is a delicate situation for any head coach, but that the experience is a positive for Kenai River.
"Fortunately, I think this has benefited our team as a whole," he said.
But with four of the Brown Bears top players competing in six games in seven days, it has strained Kenai River at practice.
"It's been a tough week of practice because of prospects," David said. "We missed out on a lot of stuff that we could have built on from the weekend."
However, all NAHL teams are faced with players missing practice due to the tournament, David said.
The Brown Bears are coming off of three consecutive 3-2 wins at Fairbanks. Prior to the series, Fairbanks had only lost three games at home all season.
"We're obviously gaining some confidence," David said of the sweep.
David said practice was key to his team's success against the Ice Dogs.
"We had a very, very productive six straight days of practice and we were firing on all cylinders," he said.
"Defensively, every line did very well," David said. "To win by one goal three games in a row against a tough team speaks volumes about our defensive side of the game."
Offensively, it's a different story.
"Most of our production comes from the same players," David said.
David said his goal is to progress on the offensive side, having more of the team contribute as the season moves forward.
"A deeper team is more of a threat," David said.
He said he remains open to trades prior to the trade deadline.
Since taking over as head coach, David has preached outworking teams and letting the scoreboard take care of itself. Kenai River's sweep of Fairbanks proved that.
"There's no doubt that winning on the scoreboard helps a young player believe what the coach is saying," David said. "They understand at this point that putting in the effort and working hard makes you a winner. It's nice that the scoreboard is starting to show that."
Though the wins are great, David isn't getting ahead of himself.
"Just because we did something special the week before, we can't jump ahead," he said.
To come away with points against the Avs, the Brown Bears will have to be focused.
"Everything is in your preparation," David said. "We need to take care of our locker room."
Besides being prepared, David said his team needs to avoid unforced errors.
"If we are fully prepared and committed, we all now realize what type of team we can be," he said. "The next step is learning how to bring your best consistently. We can't control how sharp Alaska comes in Friday night. If we're not prepared, they deserve to win."
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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