Throughout this season, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Oliver David has divvied up ice time evenly among his team. With just seven games left, the first-year coach has a new philosophy at practice -- compete for playing time.
"The horses who have it are the horses we're gonna ride to the end," David said in an interview Wednesday.
With a young team, David said he wanted to give as many players as possible a chance to experience the level of play in the North American Hockey League.
"Experience goes a long way in terms of development," he said.
But with the postseason approaching, players will have to earn their ice time.
Kenai River has just five home games remaining. The first of those is tonight as the Brown Bears host Alexandria for a three-game series. The puck drops tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center. The third game will be played Tuesday and begins at 7:05 p.m.
The Brown Bears notched a 4-3 shootout win over the Blizzard in their only meeting this season on Sept. 17. Alexandria (24-21-5) is in third place in the Central Division and has clinched a playoff berth. They are nine points behind second-place Owatonna.
"Alexandria is making a big playoff push," David said.
The Blizzard recently beat the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla 6-2, their only win in a three-game series with the Avs on Feb. 24 to 27.
"That was a pretty big statement," David said of the win. "The Avalanche have pretty much beat us the entire year."
The fourth-place West Division Brown Bears (11-35-5) are 2-13-1 against the Avs this season. Kenai River went 1-0-1 against Owatonna as part of a six-game, 10-day road trip to the Lower 48. The Brown Bears finished the trip 1-3-2, earning four out of a possible 12 points. Besides suffering a 10-2 loss to the Wild, four of the six contests were one-goal games and the other was a two-goal game.
"The guys were competing and things were progressively getting better the entire road trip," David said. "Out of our last six games, four of them were 4-3. They could have gone either way."
David said his team was close to coming home 5-1 in the 10 days, it's just a matter of closing out games. Finishing strong is essential for postseason success, he said.
"If you don't close them out, it's not gonna matter that you went to overtime or gave a good fight, your season is gonna be over," David said.
Finishing the season strong, too, is crucial. As each team in the West automatically earns a playoff berth, Kenai River will face top-seeded Wenatchee (40-9-3) in the opening round of the postseason.
"The boys want to win every game," David said. "The more we win, the more confident we're gonna roll in there."
Along with playing sound in its defensive end, David said he wants his team to have more neutral zone play. The team has also been working on releasing its shots quicker and crashing the net for rebounds, he said.
Kenai River's power play was 57 percent on the recent road trip, scoring on 8-of-14 man advantages. The Brown Bears currently have the seventh-best power play in the league at just under 18 percent.
"Special teams is doing really well," David said.
Johan Skinnars tallied nine points in the six games, recording at least one point each game. Skinnars has 28 points in 21 games played with Kenai River. Braden Kinnebrew, who's in the top 20 in scoring among NAHL defensemen, recorded seven points on the road trip.
Jesse Ramsey and Brett Lubankski tallied four points apiece and Josh Royston had five during the six-game stretch.
"More than one line was able to create offense consistently throughout the road trip," David said. "Our team is getting deeper."
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