West Report: High hopes reign again in Wenatchee
by Brian McDonough | NAHL.com
Since joining the North American Hockey League (NAHL) in 2008, the Wenatchee Wild hasn’t missed a Robertson Cup Championship Tournament.
It doesn’t plan on bucking that modest trend anytime soon.
Situated in third place in the West, the Wild has a firm hold on a playoff position in the tightly contested division and sits only two points behind Alaska in the standings and five behind front-running Fairbanks.
This despite a 5-4-1 record in its last 10 games - a mediocre mark, but one that has Wenatchee head coach John Becanic looking at the glass half full.
“I think we’ve played some very good teams over that stretch and it was an opportunity for us to measure where we’re at as a group,” said Becanic. “I thought, with the exception of a couple of periods, we liked our effort and our overall play.”
Last weekend, the Wild, which holds a 25-16-1 record overall heading into this weekend, finished with a 1-1 mark against Alaska. It was a series that pleased Becanic in more ways than one.
“I liked our overall game and felt everyone took steps in bettering their game,” said the coach. “We believe the best way to improve our team is to improve ourselves.”
And the Wild made a few moves at the trade deadline to improve its roster - ones it hopes will be difference-makers as it buckles-up for the homestretch.
“Not to diminish what our former players have contributed, but I really like our group we have now after the deadline,” said Becanic. “I think we improved in all the areas we identified as weakness.”
No stranger to Wenatchee, forward Jacob Barber was acquired in a deal with the Avalanche. Before joining the Wild, the 19-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Mo., put up 24 goals for 41 points in 43 games for Alaska and is expected to bolster Wenatchee’s offensive attack.
“Jacob gives us additional speed, which I thought we were lacking, and an obvious knack around the net,” said Becanic.
The Wild also solidified their goaltending with the addition of Greg Lewis, who was stopping pucks in the United States Hockey League.
Between Lewis, a 19-year-old from Pittsburgh, and Brandon Jaeger, already one of the NAHL’s top goaltenders, statistically, Becanic likes what he has between the pipes.
“Greg gives us depth in goal, where I think we have one of the best tandems in the league now,” he said.
Blueliner Cody von Rueden, whom, says Becanic, “automatically improves our D by stepping into a top-four role,” was also brought into the fold, as was forward Mario Puskarich, another top talent who was toiling in the United States Hockey League.
“Getting Mario gives us one of the most dynamic scorers who played Midget hockey last year (with the Chicago Young Americans),” said Becanic.
With his roster solidified, Becanic is confident in what he and his staff have assembled as the Wild chases a division title and, perhaps more importantly, another long run through the postseason.
“I like our locker room,” said the coach. “We’re a more mature and focused group. I like our compete level and our willingness to get better everyday.”
And with only four of its last 14 regular-season games at home - the Wild heads to Fresno for a pair of games on Thursday and Friday - it’ll have to find success away from Town Toyota Center, where the Wild is averaging an NAHL-high 3,256 fans a game.
Becanic, though, whose team is 9-8-2 on the road this season, sees that as a good thing.
“You have to win on the road to win a Robertson Cup, so for us we look at it in the sense of opportunity,” he said. “We prepare the same on the road as we do at home; in fact, you control more of the players’ environment on the road with less distractions, so I like it.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Matt Friese, 18, connected for two goals and an assist as the Avalanche picked up three points in two games against Wenatchee. In 21 games with Alaska - Friese rejoined the team in late November - the Wasilla, Alaska, native has 17 goals for 30 points. The Avs, who play their next eight games at home, have this weekend off before hosting Kenai River for a two-game series on Feb. 18-19.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Scott Fellnermayr, from West Kelowna, British Columbia, unleashed for a goal and three assists, including one on Dakota Mason's game-winning goal, as the Rage bested Fresno on Friday, 4-1. The 19-year-old forward ranks second in team scoring with 31 points (10 goals) through 44 games. With this weekend off, Dawson Creek will travel to Wenatchee for a two-game series on Feb. 18-19.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: In addition to his three assists in regulation, University of Alaska-Fairbanks recruit Tayler Munson scored the shootout game-winner in Saturday’s 6-5 triumph over Kenai River. Munson, who turns 18 next month, has 32 points (13 goals) through 37 games. The Ice Dogs welcome the Brown Bears to town this weekend for a two-game series.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Forward Steven Obarzanek, who was recently acquired from Amarillo, rang up a pair of goals in the Monsters' 5-1 win over Dawson Creek on Saturday. In his first eight games with Fresno, the 19-year-old from Macomb, Mich., has lit the lamp five times. This week, Fresno hosts Wenatchee for two games on Thursday and Friday.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Goaltender Josh Benton, who turns 19 next month, was sensational in the Brown Bears’ 3-1 win over division-leading Fairbanks on Friday, turning aside 46 of 47 shots. “He was awesome,” head coach Oliver David said of the Anchorage native. Kenai takes to the road this weekend for two more games against the Ice Dogs on Friday and Saturday.