Brown Bears make playoff debut today

Posted: Friday, April 03, 2009

The Kenai River Brown Bears finished the 2008-09 season in last place of the North American Hockey League's West Division.

Doesn't matter.

They went 3-12 against the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

Big deal.

And they're 14-game losing streak to finish the regular season? Who cares?

All of that is water under the bridge today when Kenai River makes its NAHL postseason debut with a 7:30 p.m. tilt against the Ice Dogs in Fairbanks in Game 1 of a best-of-five, opening-round series.

"Like I've told the players, when you hit this time of year, everybody starts out 0-0," said first-year Brown Bears coach Brent Agrusa. "What you did in the regular season at this point doesn't matter anymore.

"All those games are out the window now. They don't mean anything," he added of his team's tight losses, including four one-goal setbacks to Fairbanks. "It's not what you did in October. Everybody will only remember what you did in April."

In their second year of existence, the Brown Bears finished in the basement of the West at 14-36-8, slightly better than their franchise-opening mark of 12-38-8 last season, yet still qualified for the playoffs along with the three other divisional teams.

Regardless, it's a step in the right direction for a team boasting a single player with postseason experience.

"We've had a young team and we've done a lot of things young teams do," Agrusa said. "But you know what? We played a whole season now, so we should be more mature and have learned some things from the mistakes and we need to utilize that."

Fairbanks, which won eight of its last nine games in the regular season, finished comfortably in first place at 38-12-8, while the Wenatchee Wild and Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla, who will square off in the opening round, finished in second and third with marks of 35-19-4 and 23-30-5, respectively.

The standings could easily have been different, though.

Eighteen of Kenai River's losses came by just one goal and eight games were lost in overtime or a shootout.

"We certainly were better from the year before ... and could have been a lot better if some of those one-goal games had gone the other way," Agrusa said. "The key that I wanted them to look at is it wasn't like we were getting beat by six or seven goals every night. ... We know we can play with these teams and we know, with some hard work and some bounces, we can come in here and make some noise here."

After today's game, the Brown Bears will stay in Fairbanks for Game 2 at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

That's where things get confusing.

Should the series be tied 1-1 after both contests, Game 3 will be Sunday at 5 p.m. in Fairbanks before both teams travel to the Soldotna Sports Center for Game 4 on Friday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m., and if necessary, the fifth and decisive game the following night.

But if the series is 2-0 in favor of either squad following the first two games, Game 3 will be in Soldotna on Friday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m., followed by Games 4 and 5 on Saturday and Sunday, if necessary.

"I've always liked when the other team picks to start at home, especially if you can win those games. If you can win those first two games, you really swing the advantage over to yourself," Agrusa said. "With two wins you can steal home ice, where in a regular series you wouldn't be able to do that. That's certainly a plus for us."

So is the lack of pressure facing the Brown Bears.

And Agrusa -- who in the 2002-03 season coached the Helena Bighorns (Montana) to a sweep of the Ice Dogs in the America West Hockey League playoffs before the league merged with the NAHL, and then led the Bighorns back to the NAHL playoffs in 2005 -- doesn't mind a bit.

"I've gone through this a lot. I've been on both sides of this," he said. "I've been in Fairbanks' position and lost and I've been in Fairbanks' position and won. When you get to this point, it just doesn't matter what you did in the regular season. The pressure's on them. They're supposed to win.

"Nobody expects us to go in there and win," Agrusa added. "As I told the locker room, it only matters what we expect."

Having concentrated on the postseason for the better part of the last month, with a first-round date with Fairbanks sealed well before the season concluded, the Brown Bears aren't just content to automatically qualify for their first-ever tournament.

"Part of winning in the playoffs is you've got to believe, you've got to have that passion and step your game up because it's more intense ... it's just a different game when you get to the playoffs," Agrusa said. "I believe this team's good enough to go in and win this series. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a tough task, but I believe we can do it.

"I believe we can win. I believe the guys in that room believe we can win that series."

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