Dare long-suffering Brown Bears fans believe?
The Kenai River club has raised hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season by surging into first place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with about two-thirds of the season left to play.
But there’s one measuring stick the Bears have not yet tried — the exacting standards of the longtime rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who are in second place, just two points behind Kenai River. Both teams are hot right now — the Brown Bears have won seven straight while the Ice Dogs have taken nine of 11.
The Brown Bears get their first look at the Ice Dogs in a three-game series at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Tonight’s game is at 7 p.m., while the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“They’re well coached and they play a pretty structured game,” said first-year Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock. “Their details are maybe some of the best of anybody in the league, so I think it will be a good weekend to test our guys with some of that stuff.
“They have some pretty good players overall, but they also play very well together as a team and compete the full 60 minutes.”
Trevor Stewart is in his ninth season as head coach of the Ice Dogs. He has won the Robertson Cup in two of those seasons — two of the three Robertson Cups the Ice Dogs have amassed, as compared to none for Kenai River.
Stewart also is a big reason the Bears have gone 45-130-6-4, including 4-15 in the playoffs, against the Ice Dogs since Kenai River joined the league for the 2007-08 season. Kenai River has never won a season series against Fairbanks, including the last seven years, when the winner of that series has been awarded the Ravn Cup.
“For our guys, our goal stays the same this weekend,” Murdock said. “Every weekend, we want to come out with wins in all of the games.
“It’s going to be a good measuring stick because they’ve been successful in the past, and even this year’s team has been successful.”
Last season, the Brown Bears missed the playoffs because they struggled to score goals. When Murdock was hired in the offseason, he was tasked with upgrading the scoring and has been more successful thus far than even he expected.
With 80 goals in 22 games, the Bears are third in goals scored in the league, while the Ice Dogs have 69 goals and are tied for seventh.
Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik, who has committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage, is tied for second in the league in points with 28 and assists with 20. Rookie Theo Thrun is tied for the league lead in goals with 13 and tied for fourth in points with 26.
The Ice Dogs are lead by Oliver Kjaer, who is tied for 10th in the league with 23 points, which have come on nine goals and 14 assists.
“I don’t know we were expecting to score this much,” Murdock said. “When we were talking about putting the team together, we talked about finding speed and guys who could put the puck in the net.”
Outside of Krajnik, who led the team last year with 50 points, the leading returning scorer at forward was Trey LaBarge with 12 points.
“We were fortunate to add a few pieces that really helped, but our returning guys got a lot stronger over the summer,” Murdock said. “It shows how much time and effort they put in.”
The Bears have three players with Division I commitments, though one is injured, while the Ice Dogs have six.
Fairbanks also is stingy on defense, standing at fifth in goals allowed. Kenai River is 16th. Ice Dogs goaltender Mattias Sholl is 13th in the league with a 2.05 goals-against average, while the Bears’ Landon Pavlisin is 16th at 2.50.
“We would like to tighten things up a bit defensively, even though right now we are getting the goal support and coming out ahead,” Murdock said. “As the season goes along, defense is something we’ll definitely have to improve on.”
Defensemen JJ Boucher and Bryan Huggins are out this series with injury, but Murdock said Tristan Culleton will be back, meaning the Bears will have seven defensemen available.
Tonight, students get free entry with a student ID, while everybody else can get in for $5 at the door with a donation to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. Friday will be Educator Appreciation Night, with free entry for those with a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District ID. After the game Saturday will be Skate with the Bears.