When the season began, the first goal the Alaska Avalanche set was to earn one of the West Division’s four berths to the Robertson Cup Playoffs.
With that mission accomplished, the team’s concentration now is fine-tuning its game for a hopefully deep run into postseason.
“We’re simply trying to put together a good stretch and start to hit on all cylinders,” said Avalanche head coach Brian Huebel. “As a team, we feel that if we can do that, we can make a big push in the playoffs and do something special.
“We’ve all bought into that concept, but we need to make sure we all know and understand that there’s a lot of work ahead, and we need to do the things that are going to get us there together.”
Building on that chemistry, on and off the ice, says Huebel, is paramount if the team plans on experiencing success in April.
“That, for us, I think is going to be most important,” said the coach. “We’ll be working on the X’s and O’s during practice and film, but, for us, we need to keep bonding and coming together as a team for one common goal.
“The preparation and ability to bring a top-notch effort day in and day out is one of our keys, but we also need to be doing that as a team - 23 strong. When we do that, we play with a lot of confidence and the temperature of our team is positive and upbeat.”
A lot like last weekend, when the Avalanche, licking its wounds after losing a pair of games to division-leading Fairbanks the week prior, rebounded with a two-game sweep in Wenatchee.
It was a total team effort, says Huebel, but it was a few of Alaska’s young guns, namely the line of Evan Hesse, a 1993-born who put together two of his best games of the year, according the Huebel, Cody Bisbing, another 93, and Connor Wright, a 92, who really rose to the occasion.
“Those three brought a lot of energy and also did a lot of good things for us as a team,” said the coach.
So did goaltender Nick Kulmanovsky. The 17-year-old from Fairbanks picked up both wins in the sweep over the Wild turning aside 64 of 68 shots.
“He made some big, momentum-changing - and -saving - saves at very timely moments,” Huebel said of Kulmanovsky, who started the season in the United States Hockey League before joining Wenatchee and eventually ending up with the Avalanche. “We’re very high on him and, with him being a 1993 birth year, he’s shown great maturity and poise not typical of a younger kid.
“With him and Landon Peterson, we feel we have two goaltenders who, no matter who’s in on any given night, can backstop this team and our skaters can have a lot of confidence in.”
And the Avalanche organization is enjoying all of its success this season in uncharted territory. After spending a majority of its existence in Wasilla, the team moved to nearly Palmer where the community has embraced the club to its fullest.
“We’ve gained some new fans and people who’ve been able to put their arms around us and become big supporters,’ said Huebel. “We try to reach out in the community as often as we can; usually we have players out in the community 3-4 days a week doing various activities.”
The team also stays connected with the kids in an effort to build on the sport’s grassroots momentum, locally.
“Spending time with youth players, as well, has allowed many of the younger hockey players to look at our guys as role models and try to become an ‘Av’ one day,” said Huebel.
Huebel is high on everything his program has to offer, with good reason. In addition to the unreal scenery and unique travel destinations, he says, is the ability for young men to grow and mature as adults.
“Most of them are very far away from home, and, because of that, they’re getting real-world experience with not being able to rely on their parents; instead, they have to rely on themselves,” said Huebel. “I believe it’s just as important for them to grow as adults as it is to grow as hockey players.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: In its three losses to division champion Fairbanks last weekend, forward Jason Wark, from Campbell River, British Columbia, notched three goals. The 18-year-old has 13 goals for 23 points after 53 games. The Rage wraps up its first NAHL season with a three-game series in Kenai River from March 24-26.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Forward Gabe Levin, a 19-year-old from Marina del Rey, Calif., racked up five assists in Fairbanks’ three-game sweep over Dawson Creek last weekend. Goaltender Joe Phillippi, a 20-year-old from Shoreview, Minn., won two of those three games turning aside 62 of 66 shots.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Despite suffering pair of losses to Kenai River last weekend, forward DJ Carney scored three of the Monsters’ four goals. The 18-year-old from North Pole, Alaska, now has 11 goals for 17 points through 44 games.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom, from Sweden, stood tall in the Brown Bears’ two-game sweep over Fresno turning aside 41 of 44 shots on the weekend. “Ultimately, Mathias gives us a chance to win,” head coach Oliver David said of the 21-year-old. “And I know he’s capable of more, and he’ll get the chance to prove it down the stretch.”
WENATCHEE WILD: Wenatchee dropped a two-game series to Alaska last weekend. Forward DJ Vandercook, a 20-year-old from Farmington Hills, Mich., tallied two of the Wild’s four goals scored in the series.