In a matchup that epitomizes a David vs. Goliath scenario, the Kenai River Brown Bears begin a best-of-five-game series tonight against the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the first round of the North American Hockey League playoffs. The puck drops tonight and Saturday at 6:05 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time. As per a preseason agreement, every game will be played at Wenatchee.
The fourth-place West Division Brown Bears (12-40-6) are 1-10-1 against the first-place Wild (45-10-3) this year. Wenatchee is tied with Topeka for the top team overall in the NAHL with 93 points.
"They have (fewer) losses than we do wins, and that's not by accident, that's by design," Brown Bears head coach Oliver David said on Wednesday. "Obviously we are underdogs. If there was a spread, we'd be handicapped quite a lot."
The coach said Kenai River must try to keep the games close as long as possible to put pressure on the favorites.
"That starts to even itself out the longer we combat them and try to keep the scoreboard even," David said. "The longer the series goes and the longer the games go, it becomes anybody's series."
The key to success against an offensive juggernaut like Wenatchee, which ranks second in the league with 219 goals, is sharp defensive zone play, said Kenai River captain Johan Skinnars. The return of blue-liner Jake Musselman, who went home to Colorado during the December break to focus on academics, brings speed to Kenai River's defense. Musselman is preparing to enter the U.S. Air Force Academy. Though nothing is official, Musselman is poised to become the first Brown Bear to play NCAA Division I college hockey. He remained active on the Brown Bears' roster and played sporadically on road trips in the second half of the season.
Defenseman Ray Stenehjem, who broke his arm in early February, had hopes of joining Musselman in the postseason. But his bones have not fully healed, sidelining him for the remainder of the season, David said.
Burying the puck when given the opportunity is also crucial, as Wenatchee limits opposing team's scoring chances, Skinnars said. The Wild have given up 125 goals this season, tying them for first in the NAHL in goals against with St. Louis. Opponents have scored 247 goals against Kenai River this year. Only Wichita Falls has allowed more.
"That's definitely gonna be big in the playoffs. We have to capitalize on our chances," Brown Bears captain Brad Fusaro said.
The first step in achieving an upset of arguably the best team in the league is believing as a team it can happen, Skinnars said.
"If you don't believe it, you can't do it," he said.
"There's no room to be negative," David said. "You have to remember to be positive and have a good attitude. Positivism has the ability to propel you forward."
"Going up against the No. 1 team is going to take a lot of heart and discipline," Fusaro said. "Everyone has to believe in winning."
The Brown Bears have that belief. Their inspiration -- the team's three-game sweep of Fairbanks in mid-January.
"We can do it, we did it against Fairbanks," Fusaro said.
Kenai River defeated the Ice Dogs 3-2 in three straight games on Jan. 14 to 16 on enemy ice in a rink that ranks third in the league in attendance, averaging more than 2,000 fans per game.
Defense was a major factor in Kenai River's sweep. It held Fairbanks to just two goals per game.
"We focused on our defense up there," Skinnars said. "If we can do that again, we should win the series."
For Wenatchee, having the entire team ready to skate is vital for success against the Brown Bears, assistant coach Ryan McKelvie said.
"It's important that we have all 20 of our players ready to play," he said. "In the playoffs, little things can cost you a series. Kenai River is going to bring everything they have. If one or two guys are not ready to play, it will cost us."
Without a prolific goal scorer -- Wenatchee's leader has 27 -- everyone in the lineup must be prepared each night, McKelvie said. The Wild have nine players with 30 or more points this season.
"We've got a very skilled team and a very deep team," McKelvie said. "They've got really good character in our locker room."
Skinnars leads his team with 39 points in 28 games since being traded to Kenai River in late November. The Brown Bears have three players with 30 or more points this season.
Sound play in the defensive end was David's message this week at practice.
"We have to be very patient in our defensive zone and make sure to keep play around the perimeter and out of the zone as long as possible," David said. When the play does come near the net, the Brown Bears must aggressively clear the puck, he said.
On the offensive side, Kenai River must accentuate its strengths, David said. Those include working well in the corners and sustaining a good forecheck, he said.
Despite dominating the season series, the Wild aren't looking past the Brown Bears and have a one-game-at-a-time mentality with their immediate focus on tonight's contest, McKelvie said.
"Kenai is a good team," he said. "We definitely respect their team."
Skating hard is an absolute must against the Brown Bears, McKelvie said.
"We need to outwork Kenai, which is going to be tough to do. Their kids work really hard," he said.
The Brown Bears will rely on their recent success on the power play to spark the team's offense. In the final 13 games of the season, Kenai River scored 16 power-play goals. Its power play, which ranks sixth in the league, is operating at 36.4 percent since Feb. 25. Fifty-two of the Brown Bears' 144 total goals this season have come on the man advantage.
"It's a big high point in our season," David said. "It's nice to see that kind of success."
Finding the right personnel to operate the man advantage has been the key to the success of Kenai River's special teams, David said.
"The coach found the right spots for everyone," Skinnars said.
Wenatchee's power play and penalty kill both rank third in the league. Kenai River's penalty killing is 17th out of 19 teams.
McKelvie said his team is at its best when it's limiting opposing team's scoring chances.
"When we're at the top of our game, we're playing very, very good team defense," he said. Playing physical and backchecking are two other essential aspects of the Wild's game, he said.
For Kenai River, staying positive as a team produces the best results on the ice, David said. A week of solid practices prior to a weekend series is a good indicator the team will be ready to play, he said.
This week, the energy level was high at practice and everyone understood what to do in the defensive zone, David said. That being the case, even if Kenai River plays its best hockey, Wenatchee is capable of playing better, he said.
"Even if you're at your sharpest, they have the ability to be a little sharper."
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