The Kenai River Brown Bears aren’t done with their road trip yet, but at least they’re back practicing on home ice.
Head coach Geoff Beauparlant said he’s hoping the return to a somewhat normal schedule helps snap his squad from a 10-game losing streak.
“We’ll now be in Alaska and in our routine for the next couple months — we’re in Alaska through the end of February,” Beauparlant said. “It’s an important stretch for us. Everybody realizes we have to put our best foot forward.”
The Bears travel to Fairbanks to take on the Ice Dogs in 7:30 p.m. games today and Saturday. Those games mark the end of a 13-game road trip that has been a nightmare so far.
The Bears started the trip with a 3-2, shootout victory over the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild on Nov. 28. They then only picked up two points in their next 10 games.
And it’s not like the club was losing nail-biters. The average margin of defeat was 2.5 goals.
The good news for the Bears is they are still in the playoff chase due to the Minnesota Magicians also entering a tough spell.
The Magicians have lost six straight. At 13-22-0, they lead the Brown Bears for the fourth and final playoff slot out of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division by two points. Kenai River checks in at 11-21-2.
“The fortunate thing is we’re still in the playoff race,” Beauparlant said. “That’s unbelievable and scary at the same time.
“What’s good is the players recognize they can still put it together. We’re not 20 points out or worse. What’s on everybody’s mind is to try and turn this around.”
The Bears have made several personnel moves with a turnaround in mind.
Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz has returned from the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the Tier I United States Hockey League, where he had a goal in 10 games.
“We didn’t find out about Zack until right after Christmas,” Beauparlant said. “They called and said they wanted to move him back.
“Obviously, we’re happy to welcome him with open arms. He has an energy and passion for Brown Bears hockey and experience at the next level that is invaluable to our club. He’s been solid our first four games.”
The return of Zulkanycz bumped Manfred Ehlers from the roster. Ehlers, from Sweden, had three assists in 22 games.
As an import player, Beauparlant said he wanted Ehlers to be in the top nine forwards on the team. So when he couldn’t crack the top nine, Ehlers was off the roster.
The Bears have also brought in Cameron Cook, a 5-10, 175-pound forward whose Nov. 13, 1997, birthdate makes him the youngest on the team. He has a goal in four games.
Beauparlant said Cook wanted to finish high school in his home state of New York, but his playing situation did not work out.
“He’s our youngest player, but you wouldn’t know it by his maturity and passion for the game,” Beauparlant said.
With the addition of Cook, the Bears now have one too many on the roster. That won’t become an issue until forward Adam Kresl, recovering from a dislocated elbow, comes off injured reserve in about three weeks.
“We still have a decision to make,” Beauparlant said. “Guys know that and hopefully it will provide a spark and oomph going into this weekend.”
The final roster change came at goalie, where Josh Creelman was cut in favor of Evan Hauser. Hauser has a 1994 birthdate, meaning he is in his last year of junior play, while Creelman is a 1996.
Hauser has played three games, allowing 4.77 goals per game with an .808 save percentage.
“We wanted to get an older guy and he’s played well despite his numbers,” Beauparlant said. “We haven’t given him support, but in all three games he’s played he’s given us a chance to win.”
Beauparlant said the goalies haven’t given up a bad goal in four games. He said the goaltending has been shored up, but problems remain.
For starters, the Bears have been averaging just 2.2 goals per game on the road trip.
“It’s seems like we’ve been a little bit snake-bitten, averaging only two goals a game,” Beauparlant said. “Our goal-scoring capability on offensive chances has been a big issue.”
On the whole, though, the coach said the opposition is creating more quality scoring chances than the Brown Bears, no matter what the shot count says.
“We can’t pinpoint it to one specific thing is the most frustrating piece,” Beauparlant said. “One night it’s one guy and the next night it’s another guy.
“We’re trying to find the right chemistry amongst the lines and stay on task for 60 minutes.”
Beauparlant said the good news is the team has enough talent to compete with anybody in the division.
“We just keep finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “It’s very rarely what another team does to us, it’s more what we do to ourselves. We can’t allow our approach or mindset to change for 60 minutes.”
A trip to Fairbanks, home of the defending Robertson Cup champions, is hardly ideal for a team on a 10-game losing streak.
And the Ice Dogs will be in a foul mood, having finished 4-4-1 on a grueling road trip that mirrored that of the Brown Bears.
Fairbanks is tied for second in the Midwest Division in points and is third in winning percentage.
“That’s a place they haven’t been in a long time,” Beauparlant said. “They’ll be champing at the bit and we’ll be champing at the bit.”
Fairbanks has a 3-1 edge in the Ravn Alaska Cup, the season-long battle for supremacy between Alaska’s junior teams.
The Ice Dogs also have goalie Kevin Aldridge back. Aldridge backstopped the club to the NAHL title last season before heading to Lake Superior State, but he left the school over Christmas break.
Notes: The Bears will return to home ice on Jan. 16 and 17 with games against the Ice Dogs. Jan. 16 will be Tesoro Alaska night. For each $1 or food item donated to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, fans will be entered into a drawing for prizes.
Jan. 17 will be Stanley Auto Group night and feature a Mini-Mites game between periods.