The Kenai River Brown Bears will not be in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean they still can’t test themselves against championship-level competition.
The tough schedule of the Brown Bears continues tonight and Saturday, when Kenai River faces the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets at 7:30 p.m. both nights. Including the weekend’s games, the Bears play just five more times at home this season.
Thus far, 22 of the Brown Bears’ 50 games have come against the top two teams in each of the 23-team North American Hockey League’s four divisions. Down the stretch, seven of 10 will be against top-two squads, meaning almost half of the schedule is against the upper crust.
“That’s the story of the Brown Bears life,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “You have to play the best to be the best.”
At 15-32-1-2, the Bears have fallen out of the playoff hunt in the Midwest Division and have the lowest point total in the league.
Janesville, at 32-10-4-2, is in second in the Midwest, has clinched a playoff spot and has accumulated the fourth most points in the league.
The Jets are 3-0 against the Bears this season, beating them 2-1 on Sept. 20, 4-1 on Dec. 8 and 6-2 on Feb. 2.
Janesville boasts some of the top players in the league.
Jakov Novak leads the league with 60 points, coming on 27 goals and 33 assists. He is committed to Division I Bentley University.
Kip Hoffman is tied for second in the league with 52 points, coming on 20 goals and 32 assists. Hoffman is committed to Division I Robert Morris University.
Goalie Garrett Nieto is seventh in the league with a 2.13 goals-against average.
The Jets have 11 Division I college commitments listed on the NAHL website, and only one is an alumni.
So Petrich said the Bears, with no commitments listed on the site, have plenty to prove this weekend.
“If you can’t make the playoffs, you still want to finish the best you can and show colleges you know how to win and the quality of Brown Bears players,” Petrich said. “Team success is still important.”
Petrich said the team also wants to continue to build momentum at home in front of what he always calls “the best fans in the North American Hockey League” for the way the small community supports the team.
The Bears have won five of their last eight at home.
“We want to finish this season strong and let fans know what they have to look forward to next season,” Petrich said.
Against the Jets, Petrich said that will require a full 60 minutes of hockey. In the 6-2 loss on Feb. 2, the Bears led 2-0 before giving up four goals in about six minutes of the end of the first period and beginning of the second.
Bears notes: GCI will be the presenting sponsor Friday, while Sportsman’s Warehouse will be the presenting sponsor Saturday.