Things haven’t been easy for the Kenai River Brown Bears lately. They’re not about to get any easier.
The Brown Bears kick off a portion of their schedule that is anything but holiday friendly today and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center, when the Fairbanks Ice Dogs come to town for a pair of 7:30 p.m. games. The two games continue a season-long battle for the Era Alaska Cup, which is currently tied at one game apiece.
Next, the Bears travel to Fairbanks for a pair of games before ringing in the new year in Wenatchee, Wash., with games Dec. 28, 29 and 31 against the Wild.
The Ice Dogs lead the North American Hockey League West Division with an 18-6-0 record, while Wenatchee is second at 16-3-1. Kenai River is third at 10-10-4, while the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters are last at 6-11-3.
Since sweeping the Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats in Soldotna on Oct. 26 and 27, Kenai River has picked up just five points in eight games.
During that rough patch, the Bears have not had more than three goals in a game. That’s a massive turnaround for a squad that was third in the NAHL with 60 goals after the first Wichita Falls series. The Bears are now tied for seventh in the league with 78 goals.
“Early on, we had some false realities,” Kenai River coach Oliver David said. “Things came pretty easy to some of our guys. They were able to make highlight plays. They were kind of cheating almost, doing things on a whim.
“Other teams weren’t necessarily formed yet and playing the style they wanted to be playing.”
It’s no different than baseball, when a hitter is elevated to the next level and has a hot start before some holes in his swing are scouted. The player must adjust.
David said the biggest adjustment for his team, which is one of the youngest in the league, is learning to play the team game.
“Most of these kids were the best players on their teams,” David said. “We are still going through the process, and we will be all season, of learning how to be five-on-five guys.”
David said the best way to explain it to local fans is to point at Zack Zulkanycz, the high-scoring forward for Kenai Central last season.
“He went end to end and played every other shift,” David said. “Fans can see the point I’m making. When you take those high-talent kids and bring them to the Brown Bears, that isn’t going to work here.”
David said if the players work hard, they can make the adjustment.
“Going up a step against older, faster competition is not an easy thing even if you want it, and I believe our guys want it,” David said. “But Fairbanks walks in Friday night and they want it too.”
The Bears also have struggled keeping the puck out of the net, allowing 79 goals. Only five teams have allowed more.
Now that the offense isn’t humming, outbursts like Corpus Christi’s seven-goal effort on Nov. 23 stick out like a sore thumb.
“We were out-hustled and outmuscled all over the ice,” David said of that game. “That has been addressed.”
David said the team had a meeting the next day and played with much better effort that night in a 3-2 overtime loss to Corpus Christi.
Notes: Friday and Saturday is Military Appreciation Weekend, sponsored by Alaska USA. The weekend honors all veterans and all those currently serving, and admission is free with a military ID. The Marines also will join the Bears Saturday for the Toys for Tots program. Special-edition camouflage jerseys also will be auctioned off. ... Jude Warner has left the team. David said he will go home for the holidays and play on a Midget team and then will be traded at a later date. … Ansel Duesenberg has gone on injured reserve with a broken wrist. Brad LeLievre has gone on injured reserve with injuries to his knee and shoulder. … Two of the open roster spots will be taken by Brad Duwe and Bryan Hodges.