Fresh off five consecutive losses to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Kenai River is more than welcoming of their incoming opponent.
Although going from the top team in the North American Hockey League's West Division to the second-best team in the league may not be any more pleasant for the Brown Bears.
"We've seen them enough for right now, that's for sure," Kenai River coach Brent Agrusa said of the Ice Dogs, who improved to 8-2 against the Brown Bears this season after a three-game sweep at the Soldotna Sports Center last weekend.
"(Topeka's) a good hockey team," he added of the Roadrunners, who come to town for a three-game series beginning tonight at 7:30 p.m. "I've always felt you don't worry about who you're playing against, you just come out and play your games. It's not going to be easy beating them.
"They're going to be an older team. We've got to deal with those things and find a away to get through them."
Fairbanks also is a veteran team and so far has had its way with their rivals 500 miles to the south, including a come-from-behind, 5-4 win Saturday night, a game the Brown Bears surrendered on a short-handed, third-period tally.
"We should have won the game Saturday," Agrusa said. "We make it 4-3, we're controlling the play, we make two mistakes and they win 5-4 in a game where we certainly played well enough to win and should have won."
A major factor in the current five-game skid has been Kenai River's power play, or lack thereof.
Entering play on Nov. 17, the Brown Bears were third in the NAHL in power-play goals with 22.
Since then, however, Kenai River is just 3-for-37 with a man advantage, including a 2-for-28 performance during its recent struggles against Fairbanks.
The shots are there, as Agrusa pointed out his team fired 12 on net during a four-minute, first-period power play against the Ice Dogs on Friday. The problem is they're just not finding their way into the back of the goal.
"We've got to get to the net. We're too much on the perimeter," he explained. "Guys have got to sacrifice to score goals. We've got to start working to get those kinds of goals.
"Last game we had (48) shots on net. We continue not to score when we get our chances and give up unearned goals on the chances they get," Agrusa added. "If you're going to give up unearned goals on your end, you better score on their end and that's certainly something we haven't done."
Topeka not only boasts the second-best mark in the NAHL at 17-3-1, but the Roadrunners own the most power-play goals (32) and have surrendered the fourth-fewest (14) in the league.
The primary reason for their successful penalty kill could be goaltender Bryce Merriam, who's compiled the best goals against average (1.59) and save percentage (.931) in the league. Forward Jordan George also has 32 points, good enough for third.
"I think hopefully we're ready to play and ready to compete here and come out and show we can play with these types of teams," Agrusa said. "Right now, we've just got to concentrate at getting better at our game and concentrate on trying to put consistent 60-minute games together and scoring goals and playing better in our zone -- all the little things that get you to wins."
The Brown Bears are in the basement of the West Division at 8-15-1, two points behind the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla (9-8-1), four behind the Wenatchee Wild (10-9-1) and 14 behind Fairbanks (14-4-3).
But the Avalanche have yet to play the Ice Dogs this season, the Wild have dropped both of their meetings and Kenai River has only five games remaining against their intrastate foe.
Agrusa believes the standings will reshuffle before the playoffs, for which all four West Division squads qualify.
"You'd rather beat (Fairbanks) in March than beat them in November. If you're going to win those games, you'd rather win them when they count at the end," he said. "Right now it's trying to figure them out ... and I think we will.
"I fully believe certainly we'll compete to be the second-best team in the division," Agrusa added. "It's what you're doing at the end. I think that what you'll see is we'll make up a lot of points in the second half."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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