The Kenai River Brown Bears begin a two-game series with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs one point out of the final playoff spot of the Midwest Division in the North American Hockey League.
Kenai River and Fairbanks play at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Midwest Division has been tight all season, but has finally started to shake out a little bit.
The Wisconsin Windigo and Minnesota Wilderness have separated themselves from the pack and are good bets to get the first two of four playoff spots available in the division. The Windigo have 71 points, while the Wilderness have 65.
That leaves six teams to battle for the final two spots.
The Ice Dogs (26-22-6-0) and Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel lead that pack with 58 points, but Fairbanks only has six games left to play while the Steel have eight games left.
The Brown Bears (27-22-2-1) are next at 57 points and have eight games to play.
Next with 53 points each are the Anchorage Wolverines, with 10 games left, and the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, with six games left. The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues are the long shot with 48 points and nine games left to play.
The Brown Bears had last weekend off and generally the results on the scoreboard were kind.
The Ice Dogs failed to gain any ground on the Bears when they were swept in Fairbanks by the Jr. Blues on Friday and Saturday. The Jets also gained no ground when they were swept by the Windigo on Friday and Saturday.
The Steel gained four points on the idle Bears, but it took the Chippewa outfit three games to do it — a victory over the Wilderness on Friday, a shootout loss to the Wilderness on Saturday and a 6-5 shootout loss to the Windigo on Thursday in a game the Steel trailed 5-0 at one point.
So Kenai River still firmly controls its playoff destiny. The Bears have four games left against the Ice Dogs — two at home and two on the road — and four games left against the Wolverines — two at home and two on the road.
The last time the Bears were on the ice they swept Fairbanks 3-0 on March 10 and 4-3 in overtime March 11 in Fairbanks.
The sweep at the Big Dipper Ice Arena was only the second for Kenai River in its 16-year history. The Bears are now 3-3-0-2 against the Ice Dogs this season and have seven points in their last four games against Fairbanks.
In the battle for the Club 49 Cup, the Wolverines have 28, the Ice Dogs have 23 and the Brown Bears have 14.
Since an ugly sweep on a quick road trip to Chippewa on Feb. 3 and 4, the Bears have piled up 13 points in their last nine games. Meanwhile, the Ice Dogs have five points in their last nine games.
Fairbanks goalie Kayden Hargraves and Kenai River goalie Nils Wallstrom have been the two busiest in the league. Hargraves leads the league with 1,494 shots against, while Wallstrom is second with 1,359 shots against.
Hargaves, committed to Division I Augustana University and a four-time Midwest Division Star of the Week this season, is 23-16-5-0 with a 2.94 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Wallstrom, committed to Division I American International College and a three-time Midwest Division Star of the Week, is 21-15-2-1 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
The Ice Dogs’ Billy Renfrew, committed to Division I Northern Michigan, is tied for 15th in the league with 50 points — coming on 20 goals and 30 assists.
The Brown Bears’ Garett Drotts, also committed to Augustana, is tied for 26th in the league with 46 points — coming on 23 goals and 23 assists.