Kenai River Brown Bears forward Trey LaBarge jumps between Cole Thiessen and Shane Hathaway of the Topeka (Kansas) Pilots on Friday, Feb. 2, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Trey LaBarge jumps between Cole Thiessen and Shane Hathaway of the Topeka (Kansas) Pilots on Friday, Feb. 2, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears ready to host Ice Dogs in final 3 home games of season

Kenai River Brown Bears interim head coach Dan Bogdan has any number of motivational ploys at his disposal as his squad gets ready to host its final home series of the season this weekend.

Bogdan plans to avail himself of none of them in a series against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs that starts Thursday at 7 p.m. and concludes with 7:30 p.m. games Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Some possible motivations Bogdan is turning down:

• The playoff chase. Kenai River hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2013-14 season and still has a slim chance at the final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.

The Bears are 21-27-3-3, good for 48 points and 11 points behind the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in the race for the final playoff spot. With six games left and a win counting for two points, Kenai River’s playoff chances can’t afford losses.

• The Ravn Cup. This is the battle for supremacy each season between the Brown Bears and Ice Dogs, Alaska’s lone teams in the NAHL. The Ice Dogs have won the first six Ravn Cups and have a 5-1 lead in this season’s Ravn Cup with six games remaining between the two teams.

• The rivalry. Even with a playoff berth and the Ravn Cup being heavy lifts at this point, there’s always a genuine dislike for in-state rivals to get a locker room fired up.

Bogdan is having none of it.

“It’s just the first shift on Thursday, that’s really it,” he said. “To focus on the rest of it would just put us backward.

“We’re just going to focus on the process. That’s what’s led to us having success. Not focusing on the Ravn Cup or the playoffs.”

As for the rivalry?

“It’s one of those things you try not to overplay,” Bogdan said. “It’s one of those things that’s great saying out loud, but what it comes down to on the ice is it’s just another team you are playing, though it means more with the only two Alaska teams out there.

“It’s still about going shift to shift, period to period.”

In addition to focusing on each shift, Bogdan has encouraged the players to have more fun, be more creative and not be afraid of making mistakes with the puck.

Kenai River is 6-4-1-1 thus far under Bogdan, and is 3-1-0-1 on the current home stand.

Last weekend, the Bears nearly had a three-game sweep of the Minnesota Magicians, the second place team in the division. Saturday, the Brown Bears came from two goals down in the third period to tie the game at 2 with 1:20 remaining on a goal by JJ Boucher.

With 2:00 to play, Minnesota iced the puck and Kenai River called timeout. Normally a timeout is not a good idea when the other team ices the puck, because the other team can’t change players before the faceoff.

But Bogdan called timeout because he wanted to pull the goalie and wanted his six best players on the ice fully rested to chase the equalizer. It paid off, though the Bears would lose in a shootout.

“I brought out my best six on the ice and everyone trusted my decision,” Bogdan said.

The close bond on the team is something Eagle River forward Zach Krajnik talked about after Friday’s win. It will be needed against the Ice Dogs, who lead the division and are tied for fourth in the league with a 33-15-3-3 record.

Goalie Mattias Sholl has the top goals-against average in the league at 1.84 and has a 13-1-3-1 record.

Fairbanks, under head coach Trevor Stewart and assistant coach Scott Deur, has won five straight and seven of eight.

“They’re really well-coached. Trevor and Scott do a good job up there,” Bogdan said. “At the same time, we’ve had something special going on here the last couple of weeks.

“We can speak all we want about Fairbanks, but it’s what our guys do on a daily basis, and we clearly outperformed another team in the division that is tight with them.”

The Bears have a goalie of their own playing great in Gavin Enright, who is committed to Division I Bemidji State. This home stand has featured a string of highly regarded goalies in both nets.

Bogdan also paid tribute to the job forward Michael Spethmann is doing on the offensive and defensive sides of the puck to create chances.

“It’s playoff hockey,” Bogdan said. “Game to game, Gavin has played lights out. I can’t speak highly enough of him.

“With their goalie playing well, we know we’re going to have to get to the gritty areas to score goals. Goals won’t be scored from 40 or 50 feet out. I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing on their side.”

All Bears players are healthy and ready to go.

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