After finishing in the West Division cellar each of their first three seasons in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the Kenai River Brown Bears want nothing more than to buck that trend this time around.
And with a 6-6-1 start, including a recent five-point swing through Dawson Creek before splitting a pair of games against the Fresno Monsters, the Brown Bears are already singing a different tune.
“We have a tight group,” said Brown Bears head coach Oliver David. “Most of these guys have played together at one point or another throughout the years. In my opinion, that’s probably led to us getting off to a decent start. How we develop and compete consistently remains to be seen.”
The Brown Bears are counting on continued progress from forwards Brett Lubanski, the team’s captain, and Doug Beck, Kenai’s leading scorer (14 points). Both have returned for their second seasons and are legitimizing themselves as top-flight college prospects with their offensive abilities and leadership skills.
“Brett is simply one of the most consistent players I've worked with - ever,” said David. “And Doug’s really focused on taking his game to the college level.”
On the defensive end, 6-foot-5, 205-pound Chris Rial has been a force on both sides of the puck. Now in his second NAHL season, the Las Vegas product has points in his last five games (four goals, three assists) and 11 overall.
“He’s really, really stepped up here early on,” said David. “He’s definitely going to be a Division I guy.”
Another college hopeful coming into his own is Kegan Kiel. David is nothing but pleased with the defenseman’s maturation in this his third year with the team.
“I’m proud of him and have enjoyed watching him mature into a man,” said the coach. “Realizing what it’s going to take to be an athlete in college isn't something all players get, but Kegan has figured it out.”
High on all of his first-year Brown Bears, including Anchorage natives Sean Muller, Bobby Murphy and Connor Wright - all of whom are forwards - David is counting on continued development from his youngsters as the soak up more experience.
“Overall, I’m really pleased with the progress of our rookies and have enjoyed working with all of them,” said David. “We have a good group, a two-year core I look forward to coaching.”
The Brown Bears are also confident with their tandem between the pipes: Josh Benton, who backstopped Kenai to its 2-0-1 mark against the Rage, and Mathias Dahlstrom.
“We have a battle in the net, and that's the good thing,” he said. “Josh and Mathias both are competitive and capable of winning in our league.”
And they’ll need it out West, where points will be at a premium once again.
“We’ll have to play well to put up points in this division, that's for sure,” said David.
“As you can imagine, the morale is high,” he added. “The challenge, of course, is staying stable and off the roller coaster.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Wehebe Darge, a 19-year-old from Australia, picked up three assists as the Avalanche split a two-game set with the Fresno Monsters last weekend.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Defenseman Brett Zarazun, a 17-year-old from High River, Alberta, came through with the game-winning goal in overtime to lift the Rage to a 5-4 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Saturday.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Goaltender Joe Phillippi, a 20-year-old from Shoreview, Minn., stood tall in his two starts against the Wenatchee Wild last weekend, allowing only two goals against on 55 shots in two Ice Dogs wins.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Forwards John Siemer, an 18-year-old from Baldwin Park, Calif., and Mike Cox, a 19-year-old from Needham, Mass., each collected a goal and an assist in the Monsters' 3-2 triumph over the Alaska Avalanche on Saturday.
WENATCHEE WILD: Forward Michael Di Puma, a 20-year-old from Chicago, tallied two goals and two assists in the Wild's 7-4 victory over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday. Tied for the team lead in scoring, he has six goals for nine points through seven games.