The red-hot Kenai River Brown Bears open a two-game weekend series at home against the Minnesota Magicians, with the puck dropping Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Bears have gone undefeated in November with a 10-game win streak, fueled by a rabid offense averaging 5.1 goals a game. The 10-game win streak is tied for the longest in the North American Hockey League this year.
Sitting at 17-5-1-2 and seven points clear of second-place Fairbanks in the NAHL Midwest division with the halfway point of the season bearing down on them, the Bears know there is pressure to keep the superlative run going and stay atop the division.
Bears head coach Kevin Murdock said the team understands the task facing them.
“For us, we’re looking at it as trying to get two points out of every game,” he said. “Whether it’s a 10-game win streak or a weekend with two games lost, we’re trying to stay up there in the standings. The team’s got some confidence and playing pretty well, but it’s unrealistic to think we’re going to win every game the rest of the season.
“There’s going to be a point in time season when things aren’t clicking well, and with flu and cold season coming around, with the guys’ lineup banged up, it’s never a certainty.”
Not only are the Bears riding the longest win streak in team history, but the crowds have returned to home ice at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Instead of the half-empty bleachers that numbered in the couple hundred, the seats surrounding the Olympic-sized sheet of ice in Soldotna reached 1,859 on Saturday, with much of the bench-side bleachers full as well.
Murdock said he didn’t notice the crowd with his focus on the game, but afterward realized just how loud the place had become as the Bears defeated the Ice Dogs in a shootout.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t think I really realized it until I saw a video of (Max) Helgeson’s shootout goal, which from that angle, those stands were absolutley packed. It got to the point where you couldn’t hear yourself think.”
The stats bear out the team’s effectiveness this season — the Bears offense ranks second in the league with 95 goals, but are ranked 17th out of 26 teams on defense.
Two players in particular have shined for Kenai River in the top seven in the league scoring — Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik is tied for league lead in assists (24) and tied for second in all points (32), and is on a hot streak with 16 assists in the last 11 games, and Michigan’s Theo Thrun is tied for second in goals (14).
Murdock said that lies mostly in the consistency of the lineup.
“Part of it is we haven’t changed lines much, which gets our chemistry going,” he said. “The line combinations are clicking with some guys.”
The team also has a cornerstone goalie, Landon Pavlisin, who leads the league in wins (16-3-0-2), and, with the most minutes on ice (1,313) is one of only six goalies with over 1,000 minutes of playing time.
Murdock said the vastness of the Olympic-sized rink plays to the team’s strengths.
“We may not have the biggest or strongest team, but we have guys that can skate really well,” he said. “You give them time and space, they can do it. It buys them time and space … it allows them freedom in the offensive zone, they can use their brain and their hockey sense. I don’t want to take that away from them because it frees them up for more plays.”
The Bears are 3-1 against the Magicians this year, including a shootout loss and an overtime win at home in mid-October.
The Bears lead the lead in power play opportunities, and are fifth-best at converting them into goals. Conversely, the Magicians rank 16th in the league in power play conversion, and are even worse at penalty killing at 22nd.
Heading into this weekend, the Bears also acquired forward Skylar Gutierrez from the Lone Star Brahmas. Gutierrez is an Anchorage native with a Division I commitment to UAA, and if that name sounds familiar, Gutierrez played six games for the Bears two years ago.
Murdock said Gutierrez is familiar with some of the current players, which he hopes will translate into instant chemistry.
“He’s got some notoriety with our guys, the Anchorage guys,” he said. “He’s another guy that’s a good fit playing on a big sheet of ice. He skates well and has a pretty good brain for the game.”