The Kenai River Brown Bears begin their final push to make the North American Hockey League playoffs with games against the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"The No. 1 goal of the season with the division going to six teams was to make the playoffs," Brown Bears coach Oliver David said.
The Brown Bears qualified for the playoffs the last two seasons, but the qualification was automatic. The West Division had just four teams, and each team made the postseason. Kenai River played in a six-team division in its inaugural campaign three years ago and missed the playoffs.
If the postseason started today, the Bears would be in the playoffs. Kenai River is in fourth place in the division with a 23-21-5 record, good for 51 points. Dawson Creek (British Columbia) has been putting the heat on the Brown Bears lately, though, bumping its points total to 46.
The Rage have just five games remaining, while the Brown Bears have nine games left. After hosting division-leading Fairbanks on today and Saturday, the Rage close the regular season with three games in Soldotna from March 24 to 26. The Rage missed a chance to cut Kenai River's advantage to three points when they were thumped by the Ice Dogs 6-2 on Thursday.
The Brown Bears could make the final three games against the Rage a lot less dramatic if they can pick up two wins against the Monsters this weekend. Fresno is in last in the division with a 17-26-5 record.
"It's been a fight for a playoff spot all second half, especially with DC playing very well," David said. "They might be one of the better teams in the second half in our division."
The Brown Bears are 3-2 against the Monsters this year, including a 1-1 record at the sports center. The teams last played on Jan. 29. David said the Brown Bears can expect a different look from the expansion Monsters.
"They have a completely different dynamic," David said. "They are probably one of the top five teams in the league as far as making trades and shuffling around their roster. It'll be a different team than we played a month ago."
Steve Obarzanek has become a factor for the Monsters, scoring nine goals in his first 13 games with the team.
With only 39 points, the Monsters would have a tough time making the playoffs.
"We can mathematically make a push and, if we're not fortunate to make a playoff spot, we can at least be a spoiler," Monsters head coach Eric Ballard told nahl.com this week.
As the Brown Bears make their final playoff push, David is looking for 20-year-olds Doug Beck and Chris Rial to lead the way. Beck leads the team with 23 goals and is tied for the team points lead with Brett Lubanski at 52.
Beck recently signed to play with Division I Canisius College next season.
Rial has 13 goals and 11 assists. David said that last weekend, Rial made an official visit to hockey powerhouse University of Minnesota.
"I'm expecting a big weekend out of Rial," David said. "After making that visit, he should be fired up to come out and play."
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