Ask the Kenai River Brown Bears about their 2-3-1 record dating back to Oct. 6 and they’ll tell you they deserve more than that mediocre mark.
What matters most, though, for head coach Oliver David, is his team’s ability to skate with the top teams in the West, which was proven last weekend after a two-game sweep over Fairbanks.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling, because I feel like we’ve played well for six games now,” said David. “That said, stacking up well against a great Fairbanks team shows our boys we can play with the best of them.”
Kenai knocked off the Ice Dogs on Friday, 5-2, and followed that up with a 3-2 triumph the next night. The wins evened the Brown Bears’ record to 8-8-1 on the season.
“Fairbanks is a great challenge,” David added. “We were pretty sharp most of both games and were able to earn four points.”
Forward Brad Duwe, back from a recent illness in which he lost close to 15 pounds - he didn’t play much in the Brown Bears’ pervious two series, according to David - came up big against the Ice Dogs, notching two goals and three assists.
“Brad make quite a splash,” David said of the 18-year-old from Soldotna, Alaska. “He proved he’s an elite player in our league.”
Equally impressive was the play of goaltender Josh Benton, an 18-year-old from Anchorage who allowed only four Ice Dogs goals to pick up both wins and improve to 7-4-2 on the season. He holds a 2.59 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.
“Mike’s a gamer; I love his competitiveness,” said David. “He’s worked hard on his fitness and has been putting up the stats to warrant giving him more and more games for us.”
One player turning the corner into a top-level defenseman is Ray Stenehjem. He picked up a goal and an assist in Friday’s win over the Ice Dogs and was also an impressive plus-5.
Like Benton, Stenehjem, a 19-year-old from Anchorage, is committed to his off-ice regime, which is paying dividends.
“His talent is undeniable,” lauded David. “Becoming an athlete and learning to function at an elite level is starting to pay off for Ray.”
What’s more, forward Kyle Keenan, recently acquired from Wenatchee, and defenseman Erick Ware, an early-season pickup from Texas, have brought plenty of value, on and off the ice.
“We’re very pleased with Kyle’s overall attitude; the boys have welcomed the addition,” said David. “And Erick continues to be a go-to guy for us. He can really skate the puck and shoots really well. He's a great locker room guy, too; he’s fitting right in.”
Given their competitiveness, the Brown Bears aren’t complaining about their record - with 18 points, they’re only two points out of first place in the West Division - but know full well they’re capable of more.
“Are we making strides? Yes. If we gauge consistent play in terms of winning, or closing out games we feel we could win, we have room to grow,” David surmised.
WEST DIVISION REPORT
ALASKA AVALANCHE: With last weekend off, the Avalanche will host Kenai River for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday. Alaska, 9-7 on the season, finished October with a 5-2 record.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: The Rage, which suffered two losses to Fresno last weekend, concludes its 11-game road trip with three games against Wenatchee beginning on Thursday.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: After losing two games to Kenai River last weekend, the Ice Dogs, tied for first place in the division with Wenatchee with 20 points, will head to Fresno for a three-game series beginning on Wednesday.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Monsters’ leading scorer John Siemer, an 18-year-old from Baldwin Park, Calif., picked up a goal and two assists in Fresno’s two-game sweep over Dawson Creek last weekend. He was also a plus-3. “John’s becoming a great two-way player who has a scoring touch,” said head coach Eric Ballard.
WENATCHEE WILD: Despite two losses to Texas last weekend, goaltender Brandon Jaeger allowed only five goals against, stopping 61 of 66 shots. The 20-year-old from Champlin, Minn., is 8-3 on the season with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.