When Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David set out to assemble his roster before the season, he hoped to create stability at the goaltender position.
Not with one reliable athlete, but two.
"We aggressively sought out a tandem, a competitive tandem," David said.
Nearly halfway through Kenai River's most successful campaign in franchise history, it's become clear the second-year coach accomplished his goal.
With the Brown Bears (13-10-2) returning to the Soldotna Sports Center for a pair of games today and Saturday against the Ice Dogs of Fairbanks, goaltenders Josh Benton and Mathias Dahlstrom are in a competitive battle for playing time.
Benton, an Alaska native who joined the squad as an affiliate player late in 2009-10, has taken the ice in 16 games. Dahlstrom, a first-year player from Sweden, has played 13.
"They are constantly competing, and that's healthy," David said. "I know we have two No. 1 goalies."
How might a coach juggle playing time for two athletes he believes deserve the lion's share of ice time?
Simple: Win a game, and you start the next.
It will be Dahlstrom who lines up between the pipes for the first contest against the Ice Dogs (13-8-2), the most prolific scoring team in the North American Hockey League West Division and the third-highest goal-producing squad in the league.
Fairbanks has scored 92 goals, 4.6 per game. Only the St. Louis Bandits (98) and Texas Tornado (95) boast higher totals across the 26-team NAHL.
Benton has shown he is up to the task of facing the Ice Dogs -- he started both games in a sweep of Fairbanks last month -- but David believes Dahlstrom deserves a chance given his recent success.
The Swedish goalie has won five of his past six starts, including three in a row, after struggling to a 1-4 record to open the season. He was in goal last weekend for a pair of overtime victories against the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, coming up with two saves in a shootout to close out the second win.
"It's very clear that whoever is playing well, and in this case it's Mathias, that's who will continue to start, barring injury or illness," David said. "That's been the case since the beginning of the season."
Injury already has struck this season for Dahlstrom, 19, who played club hockey in Sweden before joining the Bears. He dislocated his shoulder and missed five games between late September and early October.
Benton was available to fill in. The 18-year-old won three of the next five games, losing one of them in overtime.
"Josh and Mathias are both capable of taking it for long stretches," David said. "That's crucial."
Dahlstrom attributes his recent success to becoming more comfortable with the pace of American hockey after playing abroad his entire life.
In Sweden, he said, goaltenders at this level face about 20 shots on goal every 60 minutes. In his past five starts with Kenai River, Dahlstrom has been on the receiving end of an average of 39 shots per game.
He adjusted to the onslaught of shots in the NAHL by moving closer to the goal line. Previously, he was able to position himself farther away from the goal. Those efforts have translated to a 90.2 save percentage.
"It took a couple games to get used to, it's a huge difference," Dahlstrom said. "You have to be ready for shots the whole time."
Benton, meanwhile, boasts a save percentage of 89.9, allowing 2.86 goals per game, and welcomes the competition for starts.
He said the better Dahlstrom plays, the harder he must work to earn playing time. Benton is 7-5 with two overtime losses in 2010-11.
Admittedly competitive, he wants as many minutes as possible, but prefers team victories over minutes on the ice.
"We all want to win, so we push each other and it's a healthy competition," Benton said, crediting his counterpart. "I'd rather have him back there than someone who can't stop a pizza."
The duo's efforts have caught the attention of teammates.
Forwards Bobby Murphy and Sean Muller agreed that by having a pair of strong goaltenders, the entire team gains confidence.
Muller remembered playing on teams where the goaltenders were inconsistent, shaky, and how the possibility of losing games because of them lingered in the back of his mind.
"We don't have to worry about that," he said.
David didn't say who would start in goal for the second game against the Ice Dogs -- a game in which the Bears could set the franchise mark for victories in a single season if they win today -- but it's not much of a secret.
Not for the man waiting to step on the ice.
"If you win the night before, you know you're going to play," Benton said. "It's kind of that cliche, but you earn your playing time."
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