After more than 120 practices, 58 games and seven months of preparation, that's what the Kenai River Brown Bears hope to earn this weekend.
They have two chances to do it.
The Bears (27-24-7, 61 points) open the 2011 North American Hockey League playoffs with a best-of-five series against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at the same time Saturday. Both games are at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks.
"That's what coach has been telling us -- go up there and get at least one win, focus on one win," said forward Sean Muller, who will make his NAHL playoff debut. "Going down two games would be tough for any team, to come back from that, because you can't lose another game.
"But if we come back with a split or even up two, we will have all the confidence that we can take care of them at home."
Winning at least one of two will be no easy task: The Bears are 0-5-1 this season at Big Dipper and have never won a playoff game.
Game 3 -- and Game 4, if necessary -- will be played next weekend at the Soldotna Sports Center, where the Bears are 4-1-1 against the Ice Dogs (40-15-3, 83 points). Game 5, if necessary, will be played in Fairbanks.
Fairbanks receives home-ice advantage by virtue of winning the NAHL West Division regular-season championship, meaning Kenai River must win at least once on the road to advance.
"It's just a tough place to play," Kenai River defenseman Chris Rial said of Fairbanks. "The fans are right on top of you, it's tough, but we are up for the challenge."
In the other first-round matchup between teams from the West, the No. 2 Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild take on the No. 3 Alaska Avalanche of Palmer.
The Ice Dogs won the division going away, notching 10 straight victories between Feb. 5 and March 9, and they outscored their opponents 49-16 over the stretch before closing the season 3-3-1.
Drawing an average of 2,126 fans in what is considered one of the league's most hostile environments for visiting teams, the Ice Dogs are 21-7-1 at the Big Dipper. Kenai River is 12-14-3 away from home.
Fairbanks coach Josh Hauge doesn't want that advantage to go to waste.
"We want to protect home ice," he said. "Most importantly, we are focused on getting Game 1. Then we'll focus on Game 2."
A physical unit, the Ice Dogs are led by the team-high 65 points of rookie Jared Linnell. They also feature four players who scored at least 50 points.
However, Hauge said it will be postseason experience that serves the squad best against the Bears.
Fairbanks advanced to the Robertson Cup final in 2010, playing 10 postseason games en route to a 3-0 loss in the championship to the Bismark (N.D.) Bobcats. Many players from that team return this year.
"You are always going to win with veterans in the playoffs," Hauge said. "They lead the way, and they know what it takes to get there."
Although the Bears are winless in Fairbanks and searching for their first playoff victory, Hauge and Kenai River coach Oliver David believe the underdogs have a chance.
The league's most prolific scoring team with 245 goals, Fairbanks is 1-4-1 when entering the third period with the score tied. Kenai River, meanwhile, is 6-2-1 when tied after two.
The Bears also feature one of the league's most efficient first lines in second-year players Brad Duwe, Brett Lubanski and Doug Beck.
All enter the series with at least 50 points.
"It really is anybody's game. It really is," David said. "It's a marathon. You get a burst of speed, you get a burst of energy, you do a couple things right for a few minutes -- that can change everything. You do a couple things wrong for a few minutes? Season over. Anything can happen."
It's been a turnaround season for the Bears.
They placed fourth in the six-team NAHL West Division after finishing last each of the past three years. They tallied a record of 15-10-4 at home, their first winning mark on friendly ice in club history. They finished .500 or better against every team in the division except Fairbanks, garnering respect across the league.
Ultimately, however, the success of this campaign will be determined against the Ice Dogs.
"We have to win," David said. "Whoever has proven that they can contribute in one way or another, most consistently, that's who is going to be playing."
There's been a shift in the team's attitude this season, the players say, because the Bears earned their way into the playoffs.
The past two seasons, they qualified by default when every team automatically made the playoffs.
"I think last year a lot of guys didn't have much hope going into the playoffs," Beck said. "This year, people want to stay here and finish the season out and stay as long as we can."
Added Rial: "It wasn't just given to us, so I think it makes everyone a little bit hungrier for the first round. We all think we can do something special here in the playoffs, so we're just hoping for it."
The Bears don't want to fall behind against the Ice Dogs. Fairbanks is 36-2-1 when entering the third period with a lead. Kenai River is 3-18-3 when trailing after two.
With a 22 percent scoring rate to Kenai River's 18 on the power play, the Ice Dogs also have been efficient on the one-man advantage.
"It's a good test," Rial said. "We're excited to play. We know it's going to be a tough battle, but we're up for the task."
Neither the Bears nor the Ice Dogs enter the series with much momentum. Kenai River lost two of three at home to close the season, while Fairbanks won just three of its final seven games.
Despite that, Fairbanks is considered a favorite to make another deep run the playoffs.
That doesn't mean Hauge is ready to look past the Bears.
"They are probably looking to change the guard a little bit," he said. "In Alaska the last couple years we have been the team to beat and teams have been coming after us, showing us their best and wanting to knock us off. Now it's time for us to show our best."
© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us