Series preview: Brown Bears at Ice Dogs

The season, and thus his time with the Kenai River Brown Bears, was over in 2014 when Alec Butcher was named the Most Valuable Player in the North American Hockey League.

But that didn’t keep something from eating at Butcher when he was interviewed about winning the award.

“Obviously, this award is good for the name (of the Kenai River organization),” Butcher said. “But I would have rather won a playoff series and be in the position to compete for the championship.

“I’m tired of being in the position of being the little brother.”

Big brother is the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who host the Brown Bears in a three-game series tonight at 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to wrap up the regular season for both teams.

Kenai River, at 12-43-2-0, is out of the playoffs, but as Butcher made clear, the rivalry is such that finding motivation will not be hard. Plus, the Brown Bears may be fast running out of chances to get even the slightest upper hand on Fairbanks.

Kenai River has announced it will take up inactive status at the end of the season, but Steve Stuber has spearheaded a full-sprint effort to try and raise about $300,000 by April 15 to keep the team active.

Building off the momentum of last weekend, when the Bears drew over 1,000 fans to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Friday and Saturday, Stuber said businesses and individuals continue to step up to help.

“I’ve been working 16 to 18 hours a day,” Stuber said. “Things are going great.

“What it’s telling me is people really care.”

But the clock is still ticking and the possibility still exists that this could be Kenai River’s last shot at Fairbanks.

The Bears, in their 10-year history, are 37-114-4-3 against the Ice Dogs. Fairbanks has won all five playoff series against Kenai River, and has three Robertson Cups while the Bears have never won a playoff series.

The only area where the Bears have an upper hand is in players that have made the NHL — one for Kenai River in Andrej Sustr of the Tampa Bay Lightning and zero for Fairbanks.

But Kenai River has been close. In 2012-13, the first year of the seasonlong Ravn Cup between the two teams that has solely belonged to Fairbanks, the Bears went 8-8 against Fairbanks but lost the Ravn Cup because two of those victories were in a shootout.

The teams then faced off in the playoffs in 2013. In a best-of-five series, the Bears led 2-1 and had a chance to close out the Ice Dogs in Soldotna, but gave up a late equalizer and lost in overtime. In Game 5 in Fairbanks, the Bears led 2-0 headed into the third period before falling 3-2.

The next year came the series of events that had Butcher so bitter after being named MVP. Kenai River again faced Fairbanks in the first round of the playoff and forced Game 5.

The game was knotted at 2 with less than 10 seconds left when the smooth-skating Albin Karllson of the Bears rushed up the right side and fed Ben Campbell in front. But Dogs goalie Kevin Aldridge slid to his right to stone Campbell, set up the Ice Dogs’ overtime win and their run to embrace another Robertson Cup.

Most recently, the Bears had a 3-2 Ravn Cup lead in early February at a time when both Fairbanks and Kenai River were out of the playoffs.

But the Ice Dogs reeled off five straight to clinch the Ravn Cup and ignite a late-season charge that has them 30-24-2-1, just one point out of second place in the Midwest Division.

Fairbanks also is just five points ahead of fourth-place Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill, who also have three games in hand, meaning Kenai River could inflict some damage if they can find a way to win in the Big Dipper for the first time since Feb. 21, 2014.

“Practice has been good and energetic, but the true test will be Thursday,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “I think everybody is motivated and the energy is up.”

After inactive status was announced, the Bears went in a funk. Inactive status would mean the coaching staff is unemployed after the season and all the players are free agents.

But a pair of big crowds last weekend, including a regular-season record 1,236 on Saturday, snapped the Bears out of it. After a 4-2 loss Friday, Kenai River won 3-2 in a memorable shootout Saturday.

“When people talk to me about the game Saturday, I tell them that’s how we were playing before the news happened,” said Worlton, who will be suspended for all three games this weekend. “Every game was a close game — our type of game where every inch matters.”

And it couldn’t have come at a better time than Saturday night, with the question of the franchise’s future hanging in the air.

“Obviously, with the fans and what it meant to the 20-year-olds and what it meant to the community, it was just awesome,” Worlton said.

The Ice Dogs present a big challenge. Goalie Erik Gordon is 11-1-0-0 with a 1.56 goals-against average since joining the team in February. Defenseman Benton Maass also is back with the team after playing the Minnesota high school season. The Division I commit had 13 points in 23 games.

“They’re a talented team,” Worlton said. “They were good when we swept them and they were good when they swept us.

“If we can play up to out standards and expectations, it will be interesting to see where we are at.”

The coach said forwards and the power play need to continue to find their scoring touch in the hostile environment.

“Our young guys have gotten better since the last time we played them,” Worlton said. “We need to play with grit, emotion and worry about ourselves.”

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