Series preview: Brown Bears vs. Tomahawks

Many bad numbers have been rapidly increasing since the Kenai River Brown Bears entered a protracted slump at the beginning of December.

However, one number — the points the Bears remain out of a playoff spot — has been surprisingly stubborn during that whole time.

“I think the guys have the right mindset, and that’s to focus on making the playoffs,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “We have to take it one game at a time and collect as many points as we can.”

On Nov. 29, the Bears were 11-13-1 and held a one-point lead over the Minnesota Magicians for the final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.

Since that time, Kenai River has posted a 2-20-1 record, yet the Bears trail the Magicians by just four points for that final playoff spot.

“That’s what keeps the guys motivated,” Beauparlant said. “In all honesty, if we were out of the playoffs by now, we probably would have gone in a different direction.

“If we were 20 points out, we would have helped the 20-year-olds get into a spot where they could make the playoffs, and developed the young guys a lot more.”

Kenai River has 12 games left, while the Magicians have 14 more games. The next four games, all at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, loom as crucial to the Bears’ chances.

Tonight and Saturday, the Bears face the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks. Tonight’s game is at 7:30 p.m., while Saturday’s is at 7 p.m.

Then next weekend, the Bears host the Keystone (Pennsylvania) Ice Miners.

Johnstown is 20-20-6, while Keystone is 23-18-5. Both teams gave the Bears trouble on the road, with Johnstown winning 5-3 and 5-2, and Keystone winning 5-2 and 3-2 in a shootout.

Tomahawks forward Casey Linkenheld gave the Bears fits, notching a hat trick in the first game and registering two goals and an assist in the second game.

Combine that scoring touch with the goaltending of Ryan Bednard, who is on the NHL Central Scouting list, and Jacob Gwillim, who has a .915 save percentage, and the Bears are in for quite a test.

“They are in your face and aggressive when they defend, and they have excellent goaltending,” Beauparlant said.

But the coach said Kenai River has to be more concerned about itself than the opposition.

“Our Achilles’ heel as a group is just one lapse of judgment has been turning the tide,” Beauparlant said.

And when that tide is turned, the Bears often don’t recover. The team has now allowed 205 goals, just one off the league lead, while scoring 108, tied for second-fewest in the league.

But it is games like last Friday’s, where the Bears played even with one of the league’s top teams — the Fairbanks Ice Dogs — for nearly the entire game before a defensive breakdown cost them the game in the final minute, that gives Beauparlant hope.

“We proved Friday that we can play with one of the top teams in the league,” Beauparlant said.

In order to do that, Beauparlant said the whole team needs to be firing on all cylinders rather than just five or six guys.

The coach said young players Tanner Schachle and Nick Klishko had good weekends against Fairbanks, while Joey Sardina played well when he got into the lineup Saturday.

Beauparlant said Alex Jackstadt has returned to the form that got him a Division I commitment at the University of Alaska Anchorage, while scoring leaders Jack Gessert and Maurin Bouvet continue to play well.

Notes: Evan Butcher continues to progress from breaking his jaw in two places on Feb. 7 in Fairbanks. Butcher should be cleared to resume skating in practice next week.

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