A turnaround season for the Kenai River Brown Bears is suddenly close to ending like all the others have -- without a playoff win.
The Bears, who racked up a franchise high in victories this season, will look to avoid elimination and earn their first postseason victory when they host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for Game 3 of a best-of-five series in the first round of the 2011 North American Hockey League playoffs at 7:30 p.m. today at the Soldotna Sports Center.
It's the first home playoff game since 2009 for the Bears. Game 4, if necessary, will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the sports center.
"It's a challenging moment and I don't know how it's going to play out," said Kenai River coach Oliver David, whose franchise is 0-8-0 in the postseason. "I don't know what we have. We'll see if they come to fight. It would be spectacular not to get swept."
If one stat gives the Bears hope, it's this: At the sports center this season, they are 4-1-1 against the Ice Dogs.
The Bears' only loss to the Ice Dogs at the sports center in regulation came 3-0 on Nov. 27. They are 0-7-1 against the Ice Dogs away from home.
So despite the fact they are coming off back-to-back losses in Games 1 and 2 by a combined score of 11-2, the Bears believe they can extend the series.
"I think we are all confident because we have shown we can beat them here," forward Matt Thompson said. "We feel that if anyone can beat Fairbanks out of our division, it would be us."
The Jekyll-and-Hyde-type results are attributed to many factors, but perhaps most telling is the play of the goaltenders.
Fairbanks' Joe Phillippi, considered one of the top goalies in the league, boasts a save percentage of .947 against the Bears at the Big Dipper (152 shots, 144 saves). At the sports center, however, he hovers at .914 percent (175 shots, 160 saves).
The Bears haven't scored more than one goal at Fairbanks since a 4-2 loss Dec. 18. At home, however, they have scored at least three goals in five of the six games.
Kenai River's Mathias Dahlstrom is the only goalie in club history to finish the season with a winning record, but he has been inconsistent against the Ice Dogs.
He is 1-2 at the sports center, winless at the Big Dipper and was pulled midway through Game 1 for Josh Benton.
The first-year player from Sweden will start Game 3.
David expects a big performance.
"He needs to rise to the occasion, as does his entire team, and prove that he wants to be a No. 1 goalie for this team," David said. "It's no easy task."
Phillippi, meanwhile, has been a rock after backstopping the Ice Dogs to a runner-up finish in the playoffs last season.
To generate more offense against one of the league's highest-rated goalies, the Bears plan to create traffic in the crease and hinder Phillippi's vision.
David wants his defensemen to slap the puck toward the goal and for his forwards to crash the crease, ready to follow deflected shots, as well as screen Phillippi's line of sight.
Do that, David said, and the Bears have a chance to light the lamp.
"If Phillippi's not challenged with some traffic and commotion, he's going to catch (the puck)," David said. "You've got to disrupt him."
From a goaltender's perspective, Dahlstrom said that strategy is precisely what makes Fairbanks so good.
The Ice Dogs ended the regular season with 235 goals, tops in the league, and created numerous scoring chances in Games 1 and 2 off deflections.
"They have a lot of people around the net all the time," Dahlstrom said. "You can't let a bad rebound go because they are probably going to have a good chance to score."
Another factor in the disparity in home and away records could be the transactions the Ice Dogs have made during the second half of the season.
Since Nov. 28, 2010, Fairbanks has made 11 roster moves, releasing, trading and acquiring a slew of players. Three of Kenai River's four wins at home against the Ice Dogs came before Nov. 28, and all seven of the road losses came after that date.
Fairbanks won 10 straight games late in the season to pull away for the division crown.
"The team we are playing against was not the team we beat 10-4," David said, referring to an early season win during which Phillippi received the hook just 34 minutes into the game. "Way better. Way, way better."
A final factor which may help the Bears play well at home is rink size.
The sports center is an Olympic-sized rink -- 200 feet long and 100 feet wide -- while the Big Dipper is NHL-sized at 200 feet long and 85 feet wide.
A small but fast team, the Bears excel in open ice because it gives their players more space in which to operate -- and more time to make decisions.
Forward Zach Capozza said that will serve the team well in Game 3.
"You feel like there are guys right on top of you," Capozza said, referring to Fairbanks' smaller rink. "When you are out there on our ice you have so much more time with the puck to make plays, more ice and better vision."
The Bears, who won a franchise-record 27 games during the regular season and earned the No. 4 seed out of the NAHL West, entered the playoffs as underdogs against the division-champion Ice Dogs.
Yet David and the players agree that qualifying for the playoffs isn't enough at this stage of the season. Not after the club about doubled its win totals of previous seasons, posted its most productive record on home ice and played .500 hockey or better during the regular season against every organization in the division except Fairbanks.
"There is definitely a lot of pressure on us," Capozza said. "We're definitely capable of playing with them, and I don't think we're going to take it lightly."
It would take three straight victories for the Bears to advance to the next round, where they would face the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild or Alaska Avalanche of Palmer. The Wild hold a 2-0 lead over the Avs in a best-of-five series.
Another Fairbanks victory, however, and the Ice Dogs would be one step closer to making the Robertson Cup finals for a second consecutive year.
"They are very good, very capable of winning the entire league, but if anyone is going to stop them, we can stop them if we work hard. We know we have a good group of kids," David said. "The task is a tough one at this point."
Ticket prices will be the same as for the regular season -- $12 for adults and $8 for youths and seniors.
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