Before the season even started, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich said the team’s goal is to make the playoffs, and that objective would be difficult because the North American Hockey League Midwest Division is so tough.
Fans are now getting a firsthand look at what Petrich is talking about.
The top four out of the Midwest make the playoffs. The Bears are currently in fourth place with a 9-8-0-1 record, good for 19 points. The Minnesota Magicians, who come to town for 7:30 p.m. games tonight and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, are in first with 26 points.
The Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets are in second with 21 points, while the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are in third with 20 points. The Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues are in fifth with 15 points.
But last weekend showed how good the fifth-place team is. Kenai River scored a tight 2-1 victory on Friday against the Jr. Blues before falling 6-1 on Saturday. The Bears have now split four games with Springfield this season.
Kenai River assistant Dan Bogdan said the Saturday game shows how thin the margin for error is in the division.
“I don’t think the score reflected how the game went,” Bogdan said. “The mistakes we did make were really magnified.”
Bears fans have also seen the sixth-place Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel and the Jets at the sports complex. While the Bears swept a Steel team that is new this year and very young, Kenai River lost a pair of very tight 2-1 games to Janesville.
“Top to bottom, the division is really strong,” Bogdan said. “The Magicians are coming to town and they are a tough matchup, but we’re having a great week of practice and we’re ready to get over that loss.”
At 13-5-0-0, the Magicians have accumulated the second-most points in the league, but they will be smarting from a 5-1 loss in Fairbanks on Saturday.
Minnesota has excelled at winning close games, as its record outperforms a goal differential of 11 that is seventh in the league. Cameron Buhl is tied for fourth in the league with 22 points.
The Bears, who still will likely be without forward Cody Moline due to injury, will be looking to get more scoring from forwards. Three of the top five scorers on the team right now are defensemen. Last weekend, the team scored three goals and one came from a defenseman.
Bogdan said there have been too many perimeter shots by the forwards.
“We’ve been working hard on getting the puck to the net, and putting the puck in the net,” he said. “I think the forwards are snakebit a little bit.
“We’re happy to get scoring from defensemen, but we don’t expect it. They’re doing a good job getting the puck to the net.”