Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears return to sports complex today

Last season, Kenai River Brown Bears fans were cut off right in the middle of the North American Hockey League team’s quest for its first playoff berth since 2014.

This season, Bears fans get to join the action just as the playoff chase hits its peak.

Kenai River will host the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel this weekend at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The games start at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. The games are all sold out.

With just 10 games left in the season and eight home games remaining, the Bears are playing in Soldotna for the first time. The team had been temporarily based in Breezy Point, Minnesota, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last season, the Bears were closing in on a playoff berth with eight games left — five at home — when the rest of the season was canceled due to the pandemic.

This season, the Bears are 16-20-1-1, good for 34 points and the fourth and final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division. The Steel, at 10-22-2-3 and 25 points, are hunting that final playoff spot.

The Bears and Steel have battled to a 4-4 deadlock this season so far.

Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock, whose team has been back in Alaska since April 6, said he hopes the vibes of home carry the Bears into the playoffs.

“Obviously, this year’s been pretty tough,” Murdock said. “This is home for us. It has a different feel from living on the road in Minnesota. We had to make that our home from home.”

The coach said it was weird getting back in his office and realizing he had not sat at his desk for over a year. He said the players also have enjoyed being back in their locker room, having a home rink and spending time with billet families.

Plus, for the first time, many players that play for an Alaska team are getting to experience Alaska.

“Some guys haven’t been up to Alaska,” Murdock said. “To see it in spring has been a cool experience.”

Murdock said the team has had several nice evening bonfires on the Kenai beach since returning.

The home feel has energized the team at the end of a long season.

Kenai River had just four games played this season before the Bears paused their season from Nov. 14 to Jan. 2 due to coronavirus mitigation measures in Minnesota.

The Bears then played a flurry of games, not only to make up for missed games, but also to try and make it possible to spend as much time at the end of the season in Alaska as possible.

Kenai River had 12 games in January and 12 more in frantic February, before cooling off with just seven in March.

Then the Bears had another gap in their schedule. When they play Friday, they will hit the ice competitively for the first time since April 3.

“It’s been kind of a ridiculous season,” Murdock said. “It’s just dragged on. It’s nice to be getting to the final push.

“We have eight of our last 10 games at home. We’ll try and make the most of that. Hopefully, we’ll have a playoff spot by the end of it.”

Kenai River was supposed to host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on April 16 and 17, but those games were pushed back to May 14 and 15 after the spectator capacity limit at the sports complex was decreased from 750 to 250 in early April due to a rise in COVID-19 cases on the central Kenai Peninsula.

The Brown Bears hope cases will be low enough by May 14 and 15 for the limit to be back up to 750 fans. The Steel series and series with the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets April 29, 30 and May 1 will be likely be 250 fans. Both series are already sold out.

“Although 250 fans is not ideal, we’ve been dealing with the same stuff in Minnesota,” Murdock said.

The team has had almost three full weeks of practice to get used to the Olympic-sized ice sheet at the sports complex.

“We were building our team to play half of our games on the big sheet of ice,” Murdock said. “We had to get away from some of those things, but now we’ve had time to get dialed in to a different style of play on the big sheet of ice.”

Those looking for a crash course on the team will find many familiar names in key roles.

Max Helgeson of Anchorage leads the team with 16 goals and 36 points and is tied for the team lead with 20 assists. Peter Morgan is second with 31 points.

The team captain is Laudon Poellinger, who is in his third season with the team and has 16 points in 37 games. Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie also is in his third season and has 23 points. Theo Thrun has returned to the team from the United States Hockey League and has 21 points.

First-year player Lucas Wahlin has been on fire lately with eight goals in seven games.

Murdock said the defensemen are lead by 20-year-olds Ryan Reid of Anchorage, Dylan Hadfield and Adam Szubert, who is fourth on the team with 24 points.

“We’ve got some younger guys working their way in and taking turns,” Murdock said of the defense. “They’ve played some really good games, but all the guys have had some ups and downs due to the length of the season.”

The mainstay in net has been Luke Pavicich, who is 14-12-1-0 with a 2.84 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. He has committed to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which recently won the NCAA Division I men’s hockey title.

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