Brown Bears enter new year eyeing improvements

Since heading home for the holiday break on the tail of a six-game winless streak, the Kenai River Brown Bears are looking to make some New Years resolutions and a playoff push.

Since skating off the ice Dec. 13 with a 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Magicians, the Brown Bears have had a lot of time to think about what needs to be done to improve. So has head coach Geoff Beauparlant.

“I think it’s just sticking to what has worked for us when we’ve been successful in the first half,” Beauparlant said. “We’ve seen a lot of bright spots towards the end, even though we’ve lost games. The younger guys have taken steps forward as the season progressed, and the older guys have jelled more.”

With 30 games down and 30 more to go, the Bears are sitting exactly at halfway in the 2014-15 campaign. The squad will start its second half tonight with a 3:30 p.m. (ADT) tilt against the Keystone (Pennsylvania) Ice Miners. The Bears and Miners play again tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Sitting fifth in the Midwest division of the North American Hockey League with 23 points, the Bears (11-18-1) are locked in a battle with the Magicians for the fourth and final postseason spot. Minnesota has accrued 26 points, although have also played three more games than Kenai River.

With third-place Coulee Region sitting with 40 points total, it appears that the fight for the final postseason spot could be between the Bears and Magicians.

“You just wanna get in,” Beauparlant said about the current playoff battle. “You wanna win championships and division titles, but you can’t look that far ahead. We’re looking at getting win number one of the second half.”

The fight for the top spot in the Midwest division is red hot. The Minnesota Wilderness hold the lead but are only separated from Fairbanks and Coulee Region by two points.

Beauparlant said there is renewed excitement as 2015 dawns, which brings hope to a team that hasn’t won a game since Thanksgiving weekend.

“I think the (Christmas) break helped,” Beauparlant said. “We needed that decompression time. It’s never easy to lose that many in a row, but we saw some good things.

“I think of the five games we lost, we could’ve won three.”

Kenai River’s last win came on Nov. 28, otherwise known as “Black Friday” to shopping enthusiasts. To the Brown Bears, the entire month of December has been dark. The Bears have gone 1-8 in their last nine games, giving up an average of 4.5 goals per contest, while scoring only 1.9 goals. In fact, the Bears have straight up given up the most goals in the league with 121 this season.

“You can’t lay it on any one aspect,” Beauparlant said. “We haven’t found a way to put all three phases of our team together. One night our forwards and (defense) are playing well but our goalies have an off night. Another night our defense and goalies play well but we can’t generate any offense.”

While the Bears work to figure out how to put together all aspects of a solid game, they will begin the second half of the season against the Miners, a team that is unknown territory to Beauparlant and company.

After their two-game matchup with the Miners, the Bears will move on the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks, a team that is a bit more familiar. The Tomahawks are the current rendition of what used to be the Alaska Avalanche, the former NAHL team based out of Palmer.

The Bears have faced the current Tomahawks squad just once — in a 6-5 shootout loss in Sept. 2012.

This year, Johnstown has built up the second-best penalty kill in the league at an 87.86 percent efficiency. On the other hand, Kenai River is ranked 16th of 24 on the power play, which suggests the Bears may have their hands full.

“We’ll worry about Johnstown Wednesday night after our game with Keystone,” Beauparlant replied. “We have a switchover day with Fairbanks and that’s when we’ll focus on them.”

Beauparlant said it is the revitalized focus that comes with a two-week Christmas break that saw many of the players travel home for the holidays. Now, back on the Kenai Peninsula, the organization is charging ahead.

“With the break comes a reassurance with our players,” he said. “To get back with family and friends is an important piece, and because of our geographical location, they don’t get to see family and friends often.

“Getting home gives you a new sense of purpose and understanding that everyone’s still there, and now we can move forward.”

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