If the Kenai River Brown Bears are going to break out of a six-game losing streak and a scoring slump, they will have to do it against the league’s best defensive team.
The Bears welcome the Minnesota Wilderness for a three-game series today at 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Wilderness, an expansion team, lead the North American Hockey League Midwest Division with a 14-3-4 record, good for 32 points that puts them third in the league.
The Bears are in third in the Midwest at 12-8-1, which is three points behind second-place Fairbanks and three points ahead of fourth place.
Minnesota is far and away the stingiest team in the league. The Wilderness have given up 28 goals in 21 games, while the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings are next with 39 goals. Minnesota has not given up more than two goals in a game since Oct. 11.
Wilderness goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, of Vantaa, Finland, has played in 17 games and leads the league with a 1.04 goals-against average and .960 save percentage.
“They boast a very balanced lineup and have an excellent goaltender,” Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “They’re very disciplined in how they play.
“They believe a lot in their goaltender, that he can make the necessary saves to keep them in the hockey game.”
The bench boss for the Wilderness is Corey Millen, who has a history on the Alaska junior hockey scene. In 2005-06, he was an assistant with the Wasilla Spirit of the NAHL, working under head coach Dean Larson, the former University of Alaska Anchorage and then-Anchorage Aces standout.
In 2011-12, Millen was the head coach of the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla, leading the squad to a 35-19-6 record.
That Avalanche squad was not particularly defensive, finishing second in the division in scoring and third in goals allowed. But Beauparlant said coaches are always altering styles to mesh with the strengths of a roster.
“They play a counterattack kind of game and do not make very many mistakes,” the coach said.
The Wilderness have also allowed the sixth-fewest power plays with 77 and killed off 100 percent of those man advantages.
“You don’t see that too often,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears, meanwhile, have struggled to score on their six-game skid, with six goals in their last five games. In that span, they faced the third-, eighth- and ninth-ranked goalies in the league by save percentage.
Four games ago, Beauparlant made the decision to break up the top line of Alec Butcher (10-13—23), Sebastian Fuchs (6-10—16) and Albin Karlsson (6-13—19), except in certain late-game situations.
Butcher has no points in the last four games, while Karlsson and Fuchs each have one.
Beauparlant said the line was broken up because it was providing 40 percent of the scoring. The coach said that a team that wants to be successful late in the season and in the playoffs can’t get that much scoring from a line.
He said teams were already starting to zero in on that line, and secondary scoring still was not picking up.
“We wanted to add depth to our lineup, and we feel we’ve done that,” Beauparlant said. “Even though our top guys haven’t been scoring, some secondary guys have stepped up, like (Nathan) Colwell, (Jack) Gessert and (Matt) Rudin.
“It’s only a matter of time before the top guys put the puck in the back of the net.”
Eric Purcell was brought in due to a trade four games ago and hasn’t added to his eight goals and seven assists since arriving. Again, Beauparlant said he is looking long-term with that trade.
“We didn’t expect Eric to come in and light the world on fire in four games,” Beauparlant said. “Long-term, we want four lines that at any given time can put the puck in the net.”
Through the scoring struggles, Beauparlant said he has seen positives. He said the effort and compete level are there, which means the Bears are learning from their mistakes.
And the coach said defense and goaltending have been solid. The Bears have given up more than three goals once in five games, and in that 5-3 loss to Fairbanks, the Ice Dogs scored two empty-net goals in the final two minutes.
The six-game losing also has come against teams that are all in the top seven of the league in points accumulated, but that won’t relent because the Bears don’t play a team currently under .500 until Dec. 31. The cumulative record of the teams remaining on the schedule is 97-70-21.
“We want to play the best,” Beauparlant said. “We don’t want to back in anywhere.
“We want to go through the best because that makes us better hockey players and people.”
Notes: The featured players for this series will be Albin Karlsson on Thursday, Zack Zulkanycz on Friday and Judd Loewenstein on Saturday. Fans buying programs have a chance to learn about the players through questionnaires the players submit. The player signs one program, and the fan with the program gets a signed photograph of the player....Today’s game is free to all kids — kindergarten through senior in high school....Friday will be a Kenai Peninsula Food Bank drive. The Brown Bears have been around town trying to round up at least 250 items of food, but Beauparlant has told his team to shoot for 400. Fans can bring food items to the game, or buy food items at the game, to get tickets that will be used to raffle off prizes....Saturday, the Marines will be doing Toys for Tots. Fans can bring or buy toys at the game. Fans then get to throw the toys on the ice between periods.