Brown Bears face crucial road tests

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2010

Chris Rial drove through a blizzard to Anchorage, boarded a flight to Boston and played three hockey games in as many days against the league's top players. Then he returned home, heading immediately to the Soldotna Sports Center for practice with the Kenai River Brown Bears.

Kenai River's burly defenseman joined teammates Doug Beck and Erick Ware and coach Oliver David for the 2010 North American Hockey League Top Prospects Showcase Tournament in Boston Dec. 5 to 7, an invite-only event for the NAHL's top players.

Rial traveled about 7,000 miles by air, drove hundreds more and played nine periods of hockey against stiff competition.

Now, after a week of practice, he will hit the road again as the Bears (14-12-3) visit the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer at 7:30 p.m. today and at the same time Saturday at the Palmer Ice Arena. The games precede a two-week break for the holidays.

"We're not on break yet," Rial said. "We've still got games to play and work to do."

Don't blame the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder if he's looking forward to some time away from the ice.

The Bears are in the midst of a stretch in which they play 13 of 15 games on the road, having just three at home between Nov. 28 and Feb. 3.

Kenai River, which is 5-5-2 on the road, must also make up ground in the NAHL West standings. The squad enters the weekend 11 points behind the first-place Fairbanks Ice Dogs (20-9-2) and 10 behind the Avalanche (20-12-1).

Fairbanks, winners of seven straight, has 42 points. The Avalanche holds 41, while Kenai River trails with 31.

David believes the team must win one of two in Palmer and play at least .500 hockey the rest of the road trip if it wants to stay in contention for a berth to the playoffs. After a trio of games at home following the break, Kenai River has three apiece at the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, Fresno (Calif.) Monsters and Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage.

"If we're able to stay around those numbers, we'll remain in contention in our division," David said. "And hopefully reach our preseason goal of making the playoffs."

It won't be easy.

The Bears have defeated the Avalanche four times in seven tries this season -- twice on the road -- but Alaska has won nine of its past 12 games to climb in the standings.

Alaska's 10-point advantage in the standings isn't insurmountable because it has played four more games than Kenai River (33 to 29), meaning the Bears will have chances to earn points when the Avalanche is idle. The teams also square off Jan. 6 to 8 at the sports center.

The players aren't looking ahead, either.

"We've worked as hard this week as we have any other," captain Brett Lubanski said. "We want to go into the break with two big wins."

Losers of three straight, it's no surprise Kenai River wants to enter the break on a positive note.

The team hasn't won since it defeated Fairbanks 10-4 at home Nov. 26. "We're definitely trying to get the momentum back," Rial said. "The road games are just as important as the ones at home, so we need to do whatever we can to pick up points."

Rial might be more accustomed to playing on the road than most of his teammates.

He, Ware and Beck suited up for three games at the showcase in Boston, putting their talent on display before crowds made up heavily of scouts and college coaches. There were four teams at the tournament, one representing each NAHL division, and David coached the West squad along with Fairbanks coach Josh Hauge.

Beck scored once and was never on the ice when the opponent scored, David said, the only player on the squad who finished the weekend with no goals against.

David believes Beck, 20, will soon sign with a Division I university, though he declined to say which schools have showed interest.

"He had an extremely strong showing," David said of the forward's effort in Boston. "We expect him to be our first D-I signing this season."

Although the West team lost each of its three games, David said the weekend was an overall success.

The Bears rarely compete outside Alaska, David added, so they don't receive as much national attention as many NAHL teams. But the trip to the showcase gave the squad exposure on a large stage.

"We hope the players get attention, and they will, and so will our team," David said.

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