Bears visit Wildcats for crucial games in playoff chase

As is often the case in the playoff chase in the tough North American Hockey League Midwest Division, the Kenai River Brown Bears fell further behind this week just by standing still.

The Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill won Thursday night, putting the Bears (26-21-7) three points behind in the playoff chase.

The Chill have 62 points and seven games left, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild have 62 points and four games left, and the Bears have 59 points and six games left. Just two of those three teams will join the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Minnesota Wilderness as Midwest Division qualifiers.

Two of the Bears’ remaining six games are today and Saturday at the Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats. The puck drops at 4:05 p.m. ADT both nights.

“They understand what is at stake,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said of his team. “Their playoff lives are on the line every time they step on the ice for a game.

“We had a great week of practice and made adjustments from last weekend headed into this weekend. We just want to prepare the best we can and go out and give it our best. Good or not, we’ll be able to look in the mirror after these six games.”

Wichita Falls has locked up the fourth playoff spot in the South Division. The Wildcats swept the Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex this season in a one-goal win and a shootout win.

The Wildcats have won four of five.

“It’s two teams that can skate and play an aggressive style of game and have solid goaltending,” Beauparlant said. “When you have two teams that do that, you get results like we had back in November — one-goal-game-type scenarios.”

The Bears snapped a four-game losing streak last weekend by sweeping Corpus Christi.

“Tomorrow night, the focus will be on being able to earn two more points on the road and continue the good play we showed last weekend,” Beauparlant said.

Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz should be able to return to the ice this weekend. He has missed the last five games with a concussion.

“He was cleared as of last Wednesday, but we held him out last weekend,” Beauparlant said. “He’s looked good in practice. He is back to his old self — playing hard, being physical and being a leader.”

The Bears also have affiliate players Evan Butcher and Marc Johnstone in town. Butcher, the brother of leading NAHL leading scorer Alec Butcher, has two goals in two games. Johnstone is scoreless in two games.

“Both have been practicing all week and looked solid, looked like they belong,” Beauparlant said. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do this weekend.”

The Bears also will have the services of Austin Chavez this weekend. Chavez got in a fight with just 16 seconds left in the Saturday game against Corpus Christi, but he did not receive a suspension because the other player instigated the fight.

Bears notes: The Bears have tendered Danny O’Donnell of the California Titans and Cole Hepler of the Esmark Stars in Pennsylvania. Beauparlant said the organization has been tracking both throughout the year and he is looking forward to both competing in main camp. The Bears have three tenders left. … The Bears were in attendance at the Dallas Stars game Monday when Rich Peverley collapsed early in the game and the rest of the contest was postponed. Beauparlant said watching the Stars’ medical crew spring into action was cause for thought. “We have a great athletic trainer in Lori Karvonen, but over the offseason (General Manager) Nate (Kiel) and I will sit down and take a look at anywhere we can get better. Maybe it’s a situation where it’s not possible, but it’s a good time to step back and evaluate where the program sits.”

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