The Kenai River Brown Bears close out their 2017-18 North American Hockey League season home slate today, Friday and Saturday against the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
With puck drops at 7 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, the Bears will be trying to go out on a high note on a busy weekend that includes Harley-Davidson jerseys and honoring both parents and billet parents.
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said getting swept by the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets last weekend was tough, but that the biggest bright spot was the fans.
“(Janesville coach) Gary Shuchuk played in the NHL and has coached at the college level and he said it was one of the best atmospheres of this season,” Petrich said. “The boys realize how great the fans were.
“In these last few games, we want something big for the fans.”
The Jr. Blues proved last weekend in Fairbanks they will not make it easy. Friday, the Jr. Blues defeated the Ice Dogs 5-3, the first home loss for Fairbanks since falling to the Brown Bears 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 2.
Springfield, at 25-21-5-1, sits in third in the Midwest Division, but is just one point ahead of the Minnesota Magicians. The Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill are 13 points behind the Jr. Blues and not out of the playoff picture.
The Bears are 15-34-1-2 and are last in the division and out of the playoffs, but Kenai River does have a 2-1 advantage in the season series with the Jr. Blues.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how they adjust to our big rink,” Petrich said. “They play in one of the smallest rinks in the league, it’s scary how tiny their rink is.”
But Petrich is more interested to see how his team responds to the 6-2 and 5-1 losses to the Jets last weekend. After having the worst record in the league two seasons ago and the second-worst record last season, the Bears are at the bottom of the league this season.
Petrich said a big part of the process is getting players angry about, and not accustomed to, to losing. He got that response last weekend.
“We talked about the maturing process with the guys,” he said. “Walking into the locker room, the overall response last weekend was frustration and being unhappy with the way we played.
“Once we get to that point, organization and team success are right around the corner.”
Although Eagle River forward Sutton McDonald is battling an illness and is a game-time decision, Petrich said all 23 players are ready to go. He looks forward to a normal lineup after illness and suspensions have forced constant shuffling during the six-game skid.
“We haven’t played with a full lineup since we were on our winning streak,” Petrich said.
Having parents and billet parents in attendance also will increase the energy.
“For me, the billet program is the bedrock of any junior hockey program,” Petrich said. “Without them, it can’t happen.”