Both the Kenai River Brown Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs would be out of the playoffs if they were to start today.
Of the 20 games left for the Ice Dogs and 21 left for the Bears, eight will be contested amongst the Alaska rivals. So the rivalry will be seasoned with postseason qualification implications when the teams meet at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex tonight at 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Fairbanks, the defending Robertson Cup champions, is 15-22-2-1 and one game behind the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division. At 10-27-2-0, Kenai River is 12 points out.
The surest way to the playoffs for either side is to dominate their rivals, and with a 37-109-4-3 all-time mark against the Ice Dogs, history would suggest the Bears are in trouble.
But a funny thing happened the last time Fairbanks came to town. The Brown Bears pulled off a three-game sweep to take a 3-2 lead in the Ravn Alaska Cup, the seasonlong battle for supremacy between the two squads.
The cup was started in the 2012-13 season and the Bears have never won it. In fact, in 10 years of playing the Ice Dogs, Kenai River has only beaten them four times or more in the regular season four times.
Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said he has little doubt that Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart and general manager Rob Proffitt have made a habit of bringing up the sweep this week.
“They’ll be ready,” Worlton said. “They want to come and try to embarrass us on our home ice. We have to make sure we’re prepared and ready to go.”
Like the Bears, the Ice Dogs spent all of December and early January on the road and struggled. But Fairbanks has won four of five since returning home, while the Bears have won two of four.
Saturday, the Ice Dogs defeated the Aston (Pennsylvania) Rebels 5-0 in what Stewart called his squad’s best game in a long time.
Meanwhile, the Bears finished off a 1-1 weekend against the Northeast (Massachusetts) Generals, who have the worst record in the league. Worlton was not satisfied with the weekend.
“It’s learning in this league, or any league, any team can win at any given time,” he said. “We have to be better and more consistent.”
Daniel Heider, an Anchorage product, missed the last three-game series with the Bears due to injury, but he’ll be back for this series. Haider has 10 goals and eight assists in 18 games.
Worlton said playing three games in three days is tough. He cut back on practice time a bit this week, because he said this series will require immense effort.
“The way that we play requires that we compete and be ready to go,” Worlton said. “Wins don’t come easy for us.”
A pair of Brown Bears were recognized by the league with honorable mention nods for Stars of the Week. Goalie Colt Hanks got his first win for the Bears on Saturday, while hard-checking forward Jonas Warman had an assist Saturday.