Right after winning 12 of 13 games to take over the top slot in the North American Hockey League, the Kenai River Brown Bears ride a four-game losing streak into a two-game series with the Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats.
The Bears and Wildcats drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Kenai River is 12-7, good for 24 points and a tie for second place with Fairbanks in the Midwest Division.
The Minnesota Wilderness lead the division with 31 points. The division is shaping up as one of the deepest and most balanced in the league, as second through sixth place are within six points of each other.
The Wildcats are 11-6-3, putting them in third place in the tough South Division.
“It’s never easy,” Bears coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “There’s not a team in this league where you can take the night off. You will get beat.”
The Wildcats have five players on the roster with Division I commitments. One of those Division I players, Tyler Ledford, leads the team in scoring with two goals and 12 assists. The Wildcats have seven players with 10 or more points, including three of the Division I players.
Coach Paul Baxter is familiar with the trip to Alaska because he used to be the bench boss for the division rival Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild.
Wichita Falls also made the trip to the sports complex last season, losing 9-3 and 5-2 with NHL draft pick Evan Cowley in the net.
The Bears’ four recent losses came on the road to the Austin (Minn.) Bruins and the Ice Dogs, a pair of perennially contending, veteran teams.
Beauparlant said the Bears need to be a little better in areas, but there is no reason to push the panic button.
He said defenseman Austin Chavez, 17, in particular, had a fine game Saturday against Fairbanks, moving his feet and not backing down from physical play in a difficult atmosphere.
“For us to find our groove we have to have a great week of practice and work hard, and I thought we did that today,” Beauparlant said Monday. “The guys seem to be re-energized and ready to get two points Friday night.”
The Bears scored just two goals in Fairbanks, and only one came from a forward.
“We’re getting our opportunities,” Beauparlant said. “It’d be one thing if we were sitting back and not getting any chances, then there would be some concern.
“Right now we’re getting offensive opportunities, we’re just not capitalizing.”
For instance, Beauparlant said the Bears had three breakaways in Saturday’s game against Fairbanks that they did not score on.
“We’re definitely excited to be back home in our rink and in front of our fans,” said defenseman Jake Bushey. “We feel we’ve been playing well, but we haven’t been able to bear down and score.
“We’ve been working on that.”
Notes: A good indicator of the victors today and Saturday might be who scores first. The Bears are 7-1 when scoring first, while the Wildcats are 7-0-1. … Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz has come on in the last five games. He has five points, tied with Albin Karlsson for most on the team in that span, and also is plus-6. The next-best mark on the team in the past five games in plus-1. Zulkanycz has 10 points and is plus-10 for the season. … The Bears might want to pay attention to Jordan Jancze. He has six goals as two assists on the year, but he has five goals and an assist on the road to lead the team in away points. … Wichita Falls is tied for the league lead in major penalties with 20 and 10-minute misconducts with seven. The Wildcats are second in the league in penalty minutes, but their penalty kill rate of 91.1 percent is third in the league.