The odds are stacked squarely against the Kenai River Browns Bears making the playoffs as the Bears open a three-game series today against the Minnesota Magicians at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Kenai River is 19-27-3-2, good for 43 points and 16 points behind the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets for the final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.
The Bears have just nine games remaining. With each win counting for two points, Kenai River’s playoff life is hanging in the balance.
Interim head coach Dan Bogdan said his squad has done a good job not letting diminishing playoff hopes affect play, and he expects that to continue in a 7 p.m. game tonight and 7:30 p.m. games Friday and Saturday.
“All I can ask is the guys show up on a nightly basis and play their best,” said Bogdan, 4-4-1-0 since taking over for Josh Petrich, who resigned for personal reasons. “This can still be a positive thing for growth.
“They can still take advantage of the opportunity at hand. They can’t worry about what happens in the division on a nightly basis.”
The Bears are currently on a 7-5-1-0 run. While this play has been solid, it hasn’t made up for the 1-9-0-1 crash that preceded it and drastically hurt Kenai River’s playoff chances.
Bogdan said Kenai River’s players are getting more college attention because they pulled out of that nose dive.
“We’ve turned the ship around here,” he said. “We hit a skid in October and November, but we got through it and we’ve come out playing our best hockey of the season.
“The attention from college coaches has been good. We’ve had a lot of conversations with schools lately.”
Bogdan said the Bears played their best two-game home series of the season last weekend in losing 1-0 to Janesville on Friday, then coming back for a 4-1 victory Saturday.
The loss Friday came when Jets goalie Cole Brady stopped all 41 shots he saw. Brady has committed to Division I Arizona State and is ranked No. 10 among North American goalies on NHL Central Scouting’s Mid-Term Rankings.
Speaking to the quality of the NAHL, the Magicians boast another top goaltender in Ethan Haider, a 6-foot-2, 207-pound 17-year-old. Haider is committed to Division I Clarkson University and is No. 16 among North American goalies in the Mid-Term rankings.
“One thing I preach to the community is that with this brand of hockey, they’re seeing some of the best players in the country,” Bogdan said.
The Kenai River head coach added that the Bears have a pretty good goalie of their own in Gavin Enright, who is committed to Division I Bemidji State.
“Gavin Enright gave up two goals in two games last weekend, and one of them was an own goal,” Bogdan said. “He was beaten on just one shot in two games.”
Enright did that against a Jets team with nine Division I commits on the roster.
Enright will be put to the test again this weekend, as the Magicians have a skilled group of forwards led by Cameron Buhl. Buhl, committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage, is 12th in the league with 54 points. In addition to Haider and Buhl, the Magicians, second in the division with a 31-18-2-0 record, have seven other Division I commits on the roster.
Kenai River is 2-5 against Minnesota this season, including 0-2 at home.
“The whole division is pretty evenly matched so I’m not too worried about being overmatched,” Bogdan said. “We’ll be looking for a sweep this weekend again.
“We want to show up Thursday and prove a point that this weekend is not going to be very fun for them.”
This weekend is Parents Weekend, so many of the players’ parents will be in town from the Lower 48 to watch the series.