Consistency remains a word that consistently comes up when talking to Kenai River Brown Bears coach Geoff Beauparlant.
As the Bears get set to host the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, the coach said his squad has made more strides toward becoming consistent, but also can improve on consistency.
The best sign of more even play comes from the last two games, when the Bears swept the Minnesota Magicians by scores of 4-2 and 3-2. Earlier in the season, they had lost to the Magicians 6-4 before winning 5-1 the next night.
Beauparlant would like to keep the momentum going against the Wild, who dropped two of three to the Bears just two weeks ago in Wenatchee.
The Bears are currently in last place in a tight North American Hockey League Midwest Division. Kenai River, at 10-11-0, has 20 points, while the Magicians and Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill are tied for third at 22 points, and the Minnesota Wilderness sit in second at 23 points. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs sit atop the division with 32 points that ties them for the league lead.
After this weekend, the next 13 games for the Bears are on the road, meaning the team won’t skate home ice until Jan. 16.
“We want to finish on a strong note at home,” Beauparlant said. “That’s big with us not playing at home for seven weeks.
“This is a big weekend. Every weekend is a big weekend. It’s so close in the standings.”
Beauparlant said the Wild present an evolving challenge, even though the Bears got the best of them just two short weeks ago. Wenatchee is on a roll after taking two of three in Fairbanks last weekend, snapping the Dogs’ 10-game winning streak.
The Wild are young, with just six players born in 1994 — the last year for junior eligibility. Ten players have 1997 birthdates and six have 1996 birthdates.
The Wild are coached by Bliss Littler, who has won more junior games than anyone in USA Hockey history.
“They’re a good young team,” Beauparlant said. “They have a lot of talent and obviously they are well-coached. As a team, they play with what I call a controlled chaos.
“They allow their players a lot of freedom and it works with the type of players they bring in.”
The Wild, who have won three of four overall to move their record to 7-9-4, have five players committed to Division I schools, while the Bears’ lone commit thus far is Alex Jackstadt.
“When you have that many young guys, you can see a vast improvement as they grow into their bodies and the style of play, and adjust to the rigors of junior hockey,” Beauparlant said.
But the coach, who has three 1997 birthdates and eight 1996 birthdates on his roster, is hoping that the maturation of his young players adds to consistency.
The Bears have gotten plenty of scoring out of their vets, with Jack Gessert leading the team with 20 points, Maurin Bouvet having 16 and Matt Rudin having 13.
Kenai River also has gotten scoring from the defense, with Tyler Andrews tallying 18 points, Gustav Berglund having 13 and Ben Campbell having 11.
Beauparlant said when his young players mature, the team will have a depth that breeds consistency.
“That’s when we can start putting in four to six goals consistently a night,” he said.
Beauparlant sees signs of that consistency. He said Joey Sardina, a 1996 birthdate, had made big strides toward being a two-way player at forward. He noted Sardina, and 1997s Colton Fletcher and Tanner Schachle, were on the ice for the last 35 seconds of Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Minnesota.
“They earned it,” he said. “They deserved to be out there. They’ve been laying it on the line for the logo and have really bought into what we are preaching as an organization.”
Beauparlant also said Manfred Ehlers, a 1996 from Sweden, had his best weekend last weekend, while 1996 Evan Butcher also is on the cusp of figuring it out.
The younger players also will be important as the Bears struggle to put 12 forwards and six defensemen on the ice due to injuries and suspensions.
Joey Kaszupski, who was out last weekend due to an illness in the family, returns, but Adam Kresl is out with a dislocated elbow and Nick Klishko remains out with a knee injury.
“It’s going to be 11 and 7 again,” Beauparlant said. “It’s one of those things where we have to keep rolling with what we’ve been handed.”
Notes: The Bears team up with Alaska USA for Military Appreciation Weekend, including a jersey auction, today and Saturday.
For Beauparlant, the weekend takes on special meaning because his wife, Maj. Heather Beauparlant, serves as a physician in the Army. In late September, she returned from about nine months in Afghanistan and she will leave the Army on Dec. 5.
“It’s a proud weekend, not only for her to have done what she did, but for our country,” Beauparlant said. “It’s an up-and-down time having a family member away, and you’re always worried, but you try to take it day by day.
“I’m obviously glad she’s back, but at the same time I know she lost friends along the way overseas, and we’ll never forget those soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”