The Kenai River Brown Bears begin a nine-game homestand Friday in a heated playoff race that looks like it will be getting even hotter.
After these nine games at home, the Bears play seven on the road, eight more at home, then close the season with three games in Fairbanks. The stretch starts with 7:30 p.m. games today and Saturday with the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel. The Bears swept the Steel at home in early October, then Chippewa returned the favor on home ice in mid-December.
When asked if this begins a crucial stretch of the season, though, Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich wasn’t having it.
“I felt like it was in the Showcase,” Petrich said of the North American Hockey League’s season-opening tournament. “I’ve been counting points since the Showcase.”
Petrich knew his team was improved, and he knew Midwest Division rivals the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, Minnesota Magicians and Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues would all be very good. The coach also said the division’s new team, the Steel, has developed into a unit that can play with anybody.
Minnesota leads the division with 45 points, while Fairbanks and Janesville have 41, Springfield has 31, Kenai River has 28 and Chippewa has 20. The top four in the division advance to the playoffs.
“It’s going to be fun,” Petrich said. “I’ve felt like we’ve played playoff hockey all year.
“We don’t have to win them all, but we have to be good every night. When we get up on teams, we can’t give points away.”
Of the last 14 games for the Bears, 11 have been decided by one goal. From late November to early December, the Bears had a stretch of nine games in 16 days, and seven of those were decided by one goal.
“It’s stressful,” Petrich said. “I think people understand the physical aspect that goes in to junior hockey, but then you’ve got the mental aspect and the psychological aspect.”
Petrich said players see their families at Thanksgiving and start pining for the holiday break. College recruiting also heats up this time of year.
For that reason, Petrich not only gave the team a Christmas break, but also a New Year’s break, which came after a series split with Janesville on Dec. 28 and 29 and lasted until a Jan. 4 practice.
“The first break was so good for the guys,” Petrich said. “That’s why we gave them a second break. You can see the guys are energized, excited to see each other and ready to go.”
The first order to business is better play on home ice. The Bears went 2-1-0-1 on their first homestand, but then went 1-4-2-0 on their most recent homestand, which ended on Nov. 25.
“Our fans take care of us and treat us unbelievably,” Petrich said. “We owe it to them to start producing at home and stringing together some wins.”
Bears notes: This will be U.S. Army weekend, with the team wearing Army-themed jerseys. …
A few roster notes: Filip Karlsson left the team before Thanksgiving and signed pro in Sweden. Also before the break, Trevor Schroder left the team when he decided junior hockey wasn’t for him.
Also, Wasilla’s Porter Schachle will not play this weekend due to an upper body injury.
The Bears have traded for Swedish forward Sebastian Frantz, who is 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, from the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes. Frantz, in his final year of junior eligibility, had three goals and six assists in 19 games for Odessa this season.
“He was drafted by the USHL for a reason,” Petrich said of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country. “He wasn’t happy with his role in Odessa and wanted to play up the middle.”
Frantz has played four games for the Bears and already has a goal and two assists.
The Bears also have announced Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie, a 5-11, 175-pound left wing with three years of eligibility after this season, will join the team for the rest of the season. Lajoie played well as an affiliate to earn the spot. He has two goals and three assists in 10 games for the Bears so far.
“He’s ready to play junior hockey,” Petrich said. “He has a knack for scoring goals and a lot to learn, but he wants to learn.”