The Kenai River Brown Bears go into their last homestand of the season needing a string of great play to even have a chance of making the North American Hockey League playoffs.
The Bears are 18-26-3-2, which puts them 15 points behind the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues in the race for the final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division. Kenai River has 11 games left — eight of which are at home — while the Jr. Blues have 10 games remaining. Teams get two points for a win, a point for an overtime or shootout loss, and no points for a regulation loss.
The homestand begins with 7:30 p.m. games today and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets. Janesville sits in third in the Midwest at 26-18-2-3, 16 points ahead of the Bears.
Kenai River interim head coach Dan Bogdan said the homestand is the perfect time to make a playoff push.
“We want to control what we can control game to game and hopefully get a little help,” Bogdan said.
Bogdan took over for Josh Petrich, who resigned for personal reasons, before the recently completed seven-game road trip. The Bears had seven points in seven games on the trip — solid play but not torrid enough to make up ground in the playoff race.
“We’ve been playing well,” Bogdan said. “We’ve been giving the kids new stuff to work on.
“The kids are enjoying it and continuing to learn and develop.”
Two main reasons the Bears are in a hole in the playoff hunt are performance at home and difficulty scoring goals.
Kenai River is 6-11-2-1 at home, accumulating the second-fewest home wins in the league. The Bears have won three of their last four at home, but started that nine-game homestand with five straight losses that put them in a playoff-hunt hole.
“They’ve been putting too much pressure on themselves at home,” Bogdan said. “We’ve been working on taking the pressure off and getting them to go have fun.”
Bogdan said having fun also was a point of emphasis on the recent road trip and it is working.
Another point of emphasis is scoring more goals. While Kenai River still ranks second lowest in the league in goals scored, the Bears have been scoring more. Kenai River averaged 2.6 goals per game on the recent seven-game road trip, while the Bears have been averaging 2.3 goals per game for the season.
“They’ve been getting better at getting Grade A scoring opportunities,” Bogdan said.
He said Kenai River has been getting to the net and taking more chances right after the puck has crossed the slot line, or the “Royal Road” extending out from the goal posts to the blue line. This makes a goalie move laterally and set up again, giving a better chance at a goal.
Bogdan expects a tight series against the Jets.
“It’s a good matchup and it has been all season,” he said. “The team that has been opportunistic has won each game.”
The coach said the Bears go into the series healthy and not facing any suspensions.