West Report: Fresno forges one last playoff push
by Brian McDonough | NAHL.com
Postseason hopes are fading fast for the Fresno Monsters, but, as long as the calculator points to a possibility of qualifying, they plan on putting forth their best effort.
“We can mathematically make a push and, if we’re not fortunate to make a playoff spot, we can at least be a spoiler,” said Monsters head coach Eric Ballard, whose team sits in last place in the West Division with 39 points.
The Monsters, who have 10 games remaining on their regular-season schedule, posted a 2-4-1 mark in February, including a 0-2-1 record last weekend against Dawson Creek.
Not a stretch Fresno was hoping for as it battles for its postseason lives, but Ballard is embracing the positives.
“We, as an organization, have worked hard, both on and off the ice, to improve ourselves and, even though that (February) record doesn’t seem successful, we’ve improved as a team in a lot of areas,” said the coach.
A few players have elevated their performance levels lately, including forward Riley Borer, who’s “emerged as a great two-way player,” according to Ballard, as well as forward Steve Obarzanek, who’s come out of nowhere to bury nine goals in his first 13 games with the Monsters after starting the season in Amarillo. Defenseman Jeff Pauluk and Garret Orhn have also delivered with consistency.
All four players are eligible to return next season, much to the delight of Ballard, who, along with the entire organization, has learned some valuable lessons in this their first NAHL season.
“Playing with an almost entire group of rookie players has been very hard for us as a team, but, through the season, we’ve been able to identify the cornerstones and key players for the homestretch and for next season,” said the coach.
“The West Division is very tough and we’ve taken our lumps, but we’ve also beaten every team in our division and we’ve improved from Day 1 and we continue to work on the things that make us better everyday.”
The Monsters’ record on the ice hasn’t sullied the fan enthusiasm at Selland Arena, however, where the team is averaging over 2,600 a game in attendance - third best in the NAHL.
Local businessman and majority owner David White has also been a huge addition to the team’s makeup and future success of the organization, says Ballard.
“The community, our fans and all the supporters here in Fresno have been so great to us and our organization,” said the coach. “We have an unbelievable support group here and it’ll continue to get better every year we’re here. There are some of the best fans in hockey right here in Fresno.”
And the Monsters want nothing more than to reward them with a strong finish, and, even if the Robertson Cup Playoffs isn’t in the cards, they plan on working hard until the end.
“We’re not focusing on playoffs but the opportunity to improve as a team and as individuals,” said Ballard. “We’re still very confident we can do some damage down the stretch, and we have a very positive locker room and a great work ethic.”
As for their remaining schedule, eight of the Monsters’ final 10 games are on the road beginning with a two-game series this weekend in Kenai River.
“We need to play 60 minutes and the effort has to be the primary focus,” said Ballard. “The byproduct will hopefully be some big wins, but the effort must be there for the last 10 games.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Alaska dropped a two-game set to division-leading Fairbanks last weekend. Defenseman Dan Senkbeil, a 19-year-old from Fremont, Calif., provided all of the firepower for the Avs scoring the team’s only two goals of the series. The Avalanche welcomes Wenatchee to town for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Still in the hunt for a postseason berth, the Rage picked up five big points last weekend in Fresno. Forward Zac Ashdown, a 19-year-old from Powell River, British Columbia, was the team’s high-scorer in the series with five points (one goal) in the three games. The Rage hosts Fairbanks for a three-game set beginning on Thursday.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Fairbanks strengthened its hold on the division lead with a two-game sweep over Alaska last weekend. Forward JT Osborn, an Alpine, Calif., native who turns 20 this month, netted three goals, including both game-winners, and an assist in the victories. The Ice Dogs travel to Dawson Creek for a three-game series against the Rage beginning on Thursday, marking Fairbanks’ final road trip of the regular season.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Idle last weekend, Kenai River hosts Fresno for a two-game series beginning on Friday. The Brown Bears, who hold a five-point edge over Dawson Creek for the division’s fourth and final playoff spot, play seven of their last nine games at home, including three to close the regular season against the Rage.
WENATCHEE WILD: With last weekend off, the Robertson Cup Playoffs-bound Wild plays its next eight games on the road, beginning with a two-game series in Alaska on Friday and Saturday. Forward Jacob Barber, a 19-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Mo., acquired last month from the Avalanche, has five goals and two assists in his first six games with the Wild.