Brown Bears continue to perservere in playoff chase

If the old maxim that everything evens out in life is true, the Kenai River Brown Bears must have had some awfully easy roads to the playoffs in the past.

The Bears, fighting to make the playoffs for the sixth time in their seventh season, indeed have made the playoffs on three occasions before the puck drop on opening night, because there were only four teams in the division.

This year’s outfit is paying the price.

Kenai River came off of holiday break on Dec. 27 in fifth place in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.

Since then, the Bears have picked up a point in 13 of 19 games, playing teams currently over .500 in 15 of those 19 games.

The reward for that relatively solid stretch of hockey? Fifth place in the Midwest Division, which would currently put the Bears out of the playoffs.

And it’s not about to get any easier. The Bears have 11 games remaining. Nine of those games are on the road, and nine of those games are against teams currently over .500.

Four of those games are against Fairbanks, the top team in the league. The Bears will end up playing Fairbanks 16 times out of a 60-game schedule. The Bears are 2-10 against the Ice Dogs thus far.

The crucial 11-game finale begins today with a 6:05 p.m. AST tilt at the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild. The Bears stay in Wenatchee for a 6:05 p.m. game Saturday and 2:05 p.m. game Sunday.

The Wild are currently in fourth place in the Midwest with 56 points, while Kenai River has played two less games than Wenatchee and has 54 points.

The Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill are in third with 58 points and have played one less game than Kenai River. The Minnesota Wilderness (65 points) and Ice Dogs (77 points) lead the division.

The Bears (24-19-6) are still smarting from a 7-1 loss in Fairbanks on Saturday. The loss came on the heels of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Ice Dogs on Friday.

“We didn’t do a lot of the little things we did Friday,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “Give Fairbanks credit, they played a solid hockey game. They were skating, they were physical and they took the puck into difficult areas.

“We got caught watching instead of playing.”

Beauparlant said the team was disappointed Saturday night, but in a better mood Sunday.

“We’re trying to use it as a rallying point,” Beauparlant said. “It could be a huge wakeup call for our guys that they need to be ready to go and play with a little bit more urgency.

“We had two pretty solid days of practice preparing for what arguably could be the biggest weekend of the year.”

The Bears won the first five games of the season against Wenatchee, but lost the last four, including a three-game sweep at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1. The Bears have won all three games in Wenatchee.

Beauparlant said the Bears must improve upon special teams and tempo in order to halt the losing streak against the Wild.

The Wild have the third-best power play in the league and seventh-best penalty kill, while the Bears are 12th on the power play and 15th on the penalty kill.

“At times when we play Wenatchee, we get caught up in a run-and-gun style,” Beauparlant said. “They like to get up and go and trade chances, while we want to play a more controlled game and take advantage of opportunities when presented.”

The series will feature two of the top four scorers in the league. Kenai River’s Alec Butcher leads the league with 55 points, while Wenatchee’s Troy Loggins is tied for third with 51.

“When he is on his game, he is one of the best players in the league,” Beauparlant said of Butcher. “But it is going to take more than just him.”

The coach said Tyler Andrews has been playing well on defense, blocking about five shots a night for the last five to eight games. Defenseman Ben Campbell also is settling in nicely after coming in a trade.

On offense, Beauparlant said the workhorse types like Conor Deal, Jack Gessert and Matt Rudin will have to contribute, particularly because gritty forward Zack Zulkanycz is out indefinitely with a concussion.

Seven of the nine games between the Bears and Wild have been decided by one goal. Four have been decided by overtime or shootout.

“It’s been an exciting hockey series,” Beauparlant said. “Both teams play with a lot of skill and speed. It’s very entertaining hockey.”

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