Kenai River Brown Bears forward Zach Krajnik tries to score late in the first period but is blocked by Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues defenseman Fletcher Fineman and goalie Evan Fear last season at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Zach Krajnik tries to score late in the first period but is blocked by Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues defenseman Fletcher Fineman and goalie Evan Fear last season at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears set to face Steel in home opener

As his team compiled a 5-3-0-0 record on a season-opening road trip, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich could not stop talking about how excited he was for the team’s fans to get to watch this squad play.

Now that the moment is here — the Bears host the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex — Petrich may have to do the opposite and dial back the enthusiasm for his players a bit.

“We’re going to see a lot of emotion on Friday,” Petrich said. “Hopefully, it’s a big crowd. I think we’re going to have to tame the boys a little bit, because they’re jacked up and ready to go.”

Petrich often says the Brown Bears have the best fans in the league, because those fans have stuck with the team through thick and thin.

Lately, though, there has been a lot of thin, with the team missing the playoffs for four straight seasons. But Kenai River currently resides at the top of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division, with the fifth-most goals in the league and the fourth-best goal differential.

Judging from social media, the talk around town and the turnout at the Brown-Gold Game, Petrich said enthusiasm for the team is high, especially after the strong start to the season.

“I’m so proud of the guys,” Petrich said. “Most of them have never done a road trip in this league, and our road trips are so much harder than what most teams in the league face.”

A big reason for the team’s success has been special teams. The Bears have the top power play in the league at 40.0 percent, although their penalty kill is 20th at 72.4 percent.

Petrich said he is pleased with those numbers, but he would like to see the percents add up to at least 115.

“Success in this league is all about special teams,” he said. “That’s a big reason why I want to get it higher. I’m greedy.”

The coach also is excited to see how his team performs on the large ice sheet at the sports center. The team was built for the big ice, but thus far training camp and seven of the first eight games have been on small sheets.

In the only game on a large sheet, the Bears defeated the defending Robertson Cup champions Shreveport (Louisiana) Mudbugs 4-1. Tuesday, the Bears practiced at the sports complex for the first time.

“Today was Day 1 and I liked what I saw,” Petrich said after Tuesday’s practice.

The Steel are a new team this season, so Petrich said he doesn’t know a lot about them. They are 3-5-0-0, in fifth place in the Midwest. Their power play is 21st in the league, while their penalty kill is 22nd.

Notes: The Bears have released Anchorage goalie Kevin Lake to get down to a roster of 23 players. Petrich said the move was tough and that he knows Lake has the ability to play in the league. … Friday will be Arby’s Night at the sports complex.

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