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Brown Bears face undefeated Monsters in weekend series

Much about the Kenai River Brown Bears and their opponents in the North American Hockey League will change between now and the end of the season.

Trades, injuries and bounces - lucky or not - will affect each squad over the 60-game slate.

Despite all that, the Bears (5-3-0, 10 points) are set for a benchmark series just eight games into the 2011-12 campaign.

Kenai River hosts the undefeated Fresno (Calif.) Monsters at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, and at 5 p.m. Sunday. All games are at the Soldotna Sports Center.

The Monsters are 6-0-0 with 12 points, chasing the Fairbanks Ice Dogs (6-0-4, 16 points) for the NAHL West Division's top spot. With a large market - Fresno is fourth in the league in attendance at 2,684 per game while the Brown Bears are 22nd at 886 - the arrival of the Monsters as a formidable opponent is not a surprise.

"As a 6-0 team, they are not thinking they are going to drop a game," Kenai River coach Oliver David said. "It's very easy to stay motivated and keep a streak like that going. This is going to be our toughest challenge of the year. We'll see how we fare."

Fresno, which missed the playoffs a year ago, swept the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage on the road last weekend and is 3-0 in games decided by one goal. The Bears, meanwhile, split a two-game set with the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer.

The consensus following practice Wednesday was that the Bears played a decent series against the Avs, but have room to improve.

And with an undefeated squad coming to town, it's a good time to make that happen.

"It's huge. The first game in any series against a team in our division is huge," said forward Sean Muller, who leads the team with eight points. "I know we are looking for two (wins) this weekend, if not three."

Added second-year player Bobby Murphy, "They are always big when you are facing a team in your division. We are trying to set a high goal and basically show them that we aren't messing around."

On Monday, the Bears trimmed their roster to 23 because of league protocol, cutting defenseman Austin Rehwinkel.

That leaves the squad with 12 forwards and nine defenseman - a ratio David said is unusual. Ideally, the coach said, the Bears would have 13 or 14 forwards.

Second-year player Jesse Ramsey moved from forward to defense at the beginning of the season, but David said Ramsey won't shift back because he isn't a scoring forward. Instead, the squad is looking for someone who can supply some firepower up front.

David didn't rule out the possibility of cutting another defenseman to make space for a score-first forward if the right player comes along.

"We are looking for a 13th forward. We are hopeful that we still have a chance for one of our premier veterans to come back," David said. "The lines are pretty good, but it doesn't mean we would pass the opportunity to get a high-end guy."

An area of emphasis recently has been on the Bears' shooting output. The team has allowed more shots than it's produced in five of eight games, yet is 4-1 in those contests.

But a box score doesn't tell the entire story.

Getting outshot isn't the same as getting outplayed, David said, because numbers get skewed based on the flow of the game. A team could rack up a ton of shots on power plays, but get outworked in other areas of the game.

"There's that way to look at it, and then there's the very simple way of, you need to get shots to score goals," David said. "We take into consideration both things - how we played, shot selection, lack of shots, lots of variables - but nonetheless we are getting outshot often. But it doesn't necessarily gauge how the entire game goes, win or lose."

If nothing else, rookie Jacob Davidson said, shooting keeps players focused.

"It really gets the momentum going, it keeps you offensive," he said. "As long as you keep shooting, the bench keeps going with high energy."

Kenai River's coverage in the defensive zone has been solid, but David said the team must do a better job of recovering the puck.

The key to doing that is to give the opponent less space. There were too many times during the series with Alaska, David said, when Kenai River gave the Avs open ice.

"We didn't make a competitive enough effort to get pucks back. We gave up space, we gave them time, we didn't block shots. It just trickles from there," David said. "We need to get on the ball and feel more motivated to go at them and go get loose pucks and win the race to loose pucks."

Rookie goaltender Paul Bourbeau will receive his second home start this season, taking over for fellow newcomer Austin Severson, who is 4-1 but struggled against the Avs.

After this series, the Bears don't play another home game until Nov. 18. They visit the Wild for two games, then get the Monsters for three more in Fresno.

"Our next eight games could be one of the hardest stretches that we face all year," David said.