The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate a goal against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Jan. 11, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate a goal against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel on Jan. 11, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Series preview: Bears look to snap scoring slump against Pilots

The Kenai River Brown Bears enter this weekend’s series against the Topeka (Kansas) Pilots on a six-game losing streak mainly due to a scoring slump.

The Brown Bears have now scored the second fewest goals in the North American Hockey League. The Pilots have given up the third most goals in the league, so today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex would appear to be an ideal time to break from the slump.

Not so fast, says Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich.

“There’s not an easy game in this league,” the coach said. “All the teams are pretty similar from the top down. Ultimately, we just have to play better.”

The current losing streak has cost the Bears dearly in the race for the playoffs. Kenai River is at 12-22-2-2, good for 28 points. That leaves them 13 points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division.

Topeka also is out of a playoff spot and battling to get back in. The Pilots are 17-18-2-4 and are just one point out of fourth place in the South Division.

“We don’t feel like we’re out of this thing,” Petrich said. “We’ve like the group we’ve had all year and I still think we have the pieces to be successful.

“We’ve dug ourselves a hole and we’re definitely going to need a little help.”

On the current six-game losing streak, Kenai River has scored just eight goals.

“Anything under two goals a game, you are asking your goalies to be perfect or win in a shootout,” Petrich said. “We have to start giving them run support.”

A lack of scoring puts more pressure on the goaltenders and defensemen. Even with all the empty-net goals they’ve given up from losing close games, the Bears have yielded the 10th fewest goals in the 24-team league at 109 — a rate of 2.9 goals per game.

Petrich has seen the goals-against rise a bit more than he’d like lately.

“Our goaltenders are feeling it a bit,” Petrich said of the paucity of scoring. “That’s why we need to get them run support, especially early on.

“The D are starting feel that we’re struggling to create chances, and they may try to jump in and help out and we give up too many odd-man rushes.”

The Bears have lost the first five of the current homestand, scoring just six goals in the process. That has dropped the team’s record at the sports complex this season to 3-10-2-1.

“We have to be ready to defend home ice,” Petrich said. “That’s something that’s on myself in my time here.

“We haven’t been good enough at home. We have great crowds and great support and we haven’t won enough games in front of the fans.”

Petrich said the large ice at the sports complex presents a challenge to a team struggling to score, because it’s easy to retreat to the open space in the corners and on the walls, instead of getting to the net.

The coach said his squad got to the net in scoring two goals in two games and getting swept by the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues. The Bears didn’t cash in on the opportunities created.

Kenai River had a rare weekend off at home following the Springfield series, giving the Bears a chance to recharge for the crucial homestretch and do things like hold a skate at Soldotna Elementary.

“We talked about the process and effort over results,” Petrich said. “We’ve focused on results too much.”

Bears notes: Goalie Dennis Westergard has left the team for personal reasons and returned to Sweden. Westergard was 4-8-0-1 this season with a 3.22 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

Petrich said Westergard will not play for the team again this season, but said he could return for his final season of junior eligibility next season.

Goalie Andrew Slobiski, 5-foot-11, 170 pounds and with two years of junior eligibility after this season, joins the Bears from Team Maryland of the Eastern Hockey League. …

This is Alaska Airlines weekend at the sports complex. The bulk of the activity will be Saturday, when rally towels are given out.

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