Brown Bears make playoffs

The Kenai River Brown Bears believe in magic, or more specifically magicians. Minnesota Magicians.

The Magicians pulled a playoff berth out of the hat for the Bears on Sunday, defeating the host Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill 7-4 in the final game of the North American Hockey League regular season.

The loss left the Chill one point behind the Bears in the race for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division, giving Kenai River its sixth-straight berth in the playoffs.

Kenai River travels to Fairbanks for Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Games 3 and, if necessary, 4 are at the Soldotna Sports Complex on April 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. Game 5 would be in Fairbanks on April 12 at 7:30 p.m..

The day started for the Bears in Fairbanks, where they had left the door open to the Chill by losing to the Ice Dogs on Friday and Saturday.

It was a brilliant flight down from Golden Heart City, with Denali in full effect, but the Bears’ attention was inside the plane on stolen glances at smartphones as the crucial game unwound thousands of miles away.

“The flight attendant was getting pretty mad at us,” Bears forward Alec Butcher said.

Minnesota entered the third period leading 5-3 as the Bears touched down and hit their locker room to watch their fate be decided.

“It definitely wasn’t the best of times,” Kenai River forward Conor Deal said. “We were banking on Minnesota to win.

“The whole team went to the rink to order pizzas. There was a huge eruption and a yell when they won.”

The Chill lost seven straight to miss the playoffs, but don’t tell the Bears they didn’t earn a playoff spot.

Kenai River had to play Fairbanks, the league regular-season champion, 16 times. Forty-six of 60 games were against playoff teams, with the Bears facing only six nonplayoff teams in their final 48 games. Further, 22 of the 60 games were against division champions.

Even with that daunting slate, the Bears finished 28-24-8 to tie for the second-most points in franchise history.

“It comes down to we found points where Coulee didn’t,” Butcher said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the last game. It could have been the first game.”

Butcher, who will play Division I hockey next season for Sacred Heart, felt a whirlwind of emotions over the weekend. He clinched the NAHL’s scoring title, but did not have any points in the losses at Fairbanks, breaking a string of seven games with at least a point.

Butcher left the ice with an injury March 22 after blocking a shot against Fairbanks, but he said his line had its chances this weekend and refused to blame an injury.

“I’m gonna say there are no excuses,” he said. “I’d block a shot again if it ensured a win.

“I’d take a puck anywhere right now. I want to win and see the team continue throughout the playoffs.”

Deal said the players that are aging out, as well as those going to college, were distraught Saturday that their Bears career could be over.

“We don’t want to experience that again,” Deal said. “I think it was a little wakeup call for the guys that are coming back — how disappointed some of the 93s were.

“We don’t want that disappointment. We want to push as far as we can into the playoffs.”

In the way, as always, are the Ice Dogs. Fairbanks won the Robertson Cup in 2011 with Beauparlant as an assistant, and Colton Wolter, Nick Hinz and Tayler Munson can all earn their second Cup as Dogs this year.

Kenai River has faced Fairbanks four times in the playoffs and was swept every year except for last season, when the Dogs won a pulsating first-round series in five games.

The Bears have won just three times in 16 tries against the Ice Dogs this season.

“I would expect they’re going to be ready,” Beauparlant said. “They have three players that have won a national championship. I’m sure they’re going to keep that room grounded.”

Beauparlant also noted that the weekend play in the Midwest Division was a big feather in the cap for the league.

The Minnesota Wilderness, Magicians and Ice Dogs had nothing to play for, yet they swept two teams — the Bears and Chill — desperately trying to make the playoffs.

“It speaks to the players and their commitment to the sport, and the high coaching in the league across the board,” Beauparlant said. “It’s a tough league to crack. It’s a high-talent and hard-working league.”

More in Sports

Visitors enjoy bear viewing in the saltmarsh at Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park. (Photo by J. Pfeiffenberger/NPS)
Refuge Notebook: Visitors to Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks rely on Kenai Peninsula services

Two national park and preserve areas, Lake Clark and Katmai, located just… Continue reading

The author is seen here trying to get in touch with her dad, who is isolating and celebrating Thanksgiving in Florida this year, and repeatedly ignoring her calls. (Photo by Kat Sorensen)
Tangled Up in Blue: Tangled up in turkey

More prevalent than pumpkin pie this holiday season is the refrain, “Are… Continue reading

Homer senior Madison Story swims the breaststroke in the girls 200-yard IM on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 during the Kenai Peninsula Swimming Championships at the Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Homer’s Story stars at state club meet

Homer senior Madison Story won two individual titles Saturday at the Alaska… Continue reading

Moose are seen eating on the shoulder of Kenai Spur Highway on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, outside of Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Out of the Office: Into the office

An ode to Kenai Spur Highway

A snowshoe hare in its white winter coat. (Photo by Colin Canterbury/Kenai National Wildlife Refuge)
Refuge Notebook: The verge of winter

As the daylight hours seem to slip away, the temperatures are slowly… Continue reading

Soldotna High School head football coach Galen Brantley Jr. poses with former players Galen Brantley III and Aaron Faletoi. Brantley III and Faletoi helped Dickinson State in Dickinson, South Dakota, to an undefeated regular season. (Photo provided by Galen Brantley Jr.)
Brantley III, Faletoi help Dickinson State to undefeated regular season

Galen Brantley III and Aaron Faletoi, 2020 graduates of Soldotna High School,… Continue reading

Ninilchik grad Vanderford moves to 10-0 in MMA

Austin Vanderford, a 2008 graduate of Ninilchik School, moved to 10-0 in… Continue reading

Kenai’s Rachael Pitsch swims the girls 500-yard freestyle on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 during the Kenai Peninsula Swimming Championships at the Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Homer girls, Kenai boys win swim meet

In their last competitive event of the season, the Homer girls swim… Continue reading

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Theo Thrun brings the puck up the ice on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, against the Minnesota Magicians at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Brown Bears split weekend games with Steel

The Kenai River Brown Bears split a pair of North American Hockey… Continue reading

CIA volleyball splits matches at Lumen

Staff report The Cook Inlet Academy volleyball team finished up its regular… Continue reading

Seward’s Lydia Jacoby races to victory in the girls 100-yard breaststroke final Oct. 27, 2018, at the Northern Lights Conference championship swim meet at Homer High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)
Seward’s Jacoby takes 2nd at national swim meet

Seward junior Lydia Jacoby, just 16, finished second in the 100-meter breaststroke… Continue reading

The author is seen here skiing a little easier at Trail Lake near Seward. (Photo provided by Kat Sorensen)
Tangled Up in Blue: Grooming the trail

During my first winter spent cross-country skiing in Soldotna, I often found… Continue reading