The Kenai River Brown Bears’ chase to make the playoffs for the second time in three years heats up Friday and Saturday when the Fairbanks Ice Dogs come to town for 7:30 p.m. games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Brown Bears have 17 North American Hockey League regular season games left, with 11 coming at the sports complex.
The Bears have regularly been drawing over 1,000 fans to the sports complex this season. Kenai River also has four games left in the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks — always a sellout at 2,242 fans — and two games left at Ben Boeke Ice Arena in Anchorage — which is always stuffed with nearly 900 fans.
So not only will every game count in the race for the playoffs, but every game is likely to be electrified by the heavy presence of fans. Kenai River finished 14-41-3-2 last season. Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said the team is glad to be back in the playoff hunt this season.
“Even though there are 17 games left in the regular season, really the playoffs are going to be every night,” Shaw said. “I think the guys are excited to be a part of that.”
The Bears are trying to make the playoffs in the very tight Midwest Division, where even at this late date, just 13 points separate first and last place in the eight-team division.
The top four teams in the division make the playoffs. Those spots currently belong to the Minnesota Wilderness (52 points), the Wisconsin Windigo (51 points), the Ice Dogs (23-16-4-0 for 50 points) and the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets (47 points).
The Brown Bears (21-20-1-1), Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel and Anchorage Wolverines are tied for fifth place with 44 points. The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues sit in last place with 39 points.
“I just think the main thing is the day to day,” Shaw said. “We’re aware of the big picture in the standings, and that certainly has to be a part of it, but for our guys tomorrow is going to be tomorrow. We have to take it one game at a time.”
Kenai River is just 3-8-0-1 since returning from the holiday break Dec. 30. Kenai River has been having trouble scoring during that stretch.
After sweeping the Steel by scores of 5-3 and 5-1 just before the break, the Bears have not scored more than three goals in a game since then. The Bears are averaging just 1.5 goals per game since coming back from break.
“We’ve tried different things in practice, but the biggest thing is we’re working on not talking about it,” Shaw said. “It’s the old saying, when you constantly talk about not being able to score, the mind believes you can’t score.”
Shaw has said the formula for winning is to take advantage of scoring opportunities, win the special teams battle and get good goaltending.
The Bears put that formula together best during a two-game sweep of the Windigo at the sports complex on Jan. 27 and 28. Those are the only two home games Kenai River has had after the break.
The Brown Bears are 8-8-1-0 at home this season, 11-10-0-1 on the road and 2-2-0-0 at neutral sites.
Kenai River hasn’t played since getting swept at the Steel on Feb. 3 and 4 by scores of 5-1 and 6-2, and Shaw said the taste of that sweep would fuel preparation for the Ice Dogs series.
“Overall, it’s been a good week and we’re glad to be back,” Shaw said. “All the guys are itching to play somebody else other than their teammates.”
In order to make the playoffs, the Brown Bears will have to play better against their Alaska rivals. Kenai River has eight games left against Fairbanks and four left against the Wolverines.
The Club 49 Cup is the battle between Alaska’s NAHL clubs. The Wolverines currently lead with 23 points, while the Ice Dogs have 15 and the Brown Bears have seven. Kenai River is 0-3-1-0 against Fairbanks and 3-5-0-0 against the Wolverines.
“I think we’re excited to be back in our barn for most of them,” Shaw said. “It’s good for our group overall. We’re excited to be able to play the Alaska teams in order to try and get in.”
Shaw said the team is healthy for the series, with goalie Bryant Marks still day to day with an injury.
Friday and Saturday, there will be a live jersey auction to benefit Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Brown Bears. Saturday is Whiteout Night, with the first 1,000 fans getting free T-shirts.