It continues to be nothing but the best for the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The area’s North American Hockey League entrant makes its lone December appearance at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex tonight and Saturday with 7:30 p.m. games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
The Ice Dogs are tied with three other teams for second in the NAHL with 38 points, but the Bears have become more than accustomed to such competition at this point.
Kenai River is in the 13th game of a 17-game stretch where all games have been against Fairbanks, the Minnesota Wilderness (38 points), the Austin (Minn.) Bruins (37 points) and the Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats (37 points).
The Bears carried an eight-game winning streak into the crucible, but are 2-8-3 against the league’s elite teams.
“We’ve grown and improved even through the tougher times in the last six weeks, when the wins haven’t come as easy and we’ve suffered some tough losses,” Kenai River coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “Along the way, we’re learning as a group from those experiences, whether they be positive or negative.”
The Bears had their first positive result of the season against the Ice Dogs on Saturday, pulling out a 5-3 win to snap a five-game skid and break the nine-game winning streak of the Ice Dogs.
“It’s going to be another grind-it-out, battle-it-out weekend,” Beauparlant said. “They’re going to be hungry coming off the Saturday game. I’m sure they were not too pleased.”
Fairbanks has a 7-1 lead in the season-long, 16-game battle for the Era Alaska Cup. The Ice Dogs are also the only team to beat the Bears by more than two goals this season, a trick they have turned four times.
Fairbanks makes a habit out of outshooting opponents. The Ice Dogs lead the league with 35.07 shots per game, and are second in the league allowing just 23.19 bids per contest.
Kenai River’s Alec Butcher leads the league in scoring with 11 goals and 24 assists, while Albin Karlsson is 16th with nine goals and 15 assists.
Fairbanks does not have a player in the top 20 in the league in scoring, but the Ice Dogs have 10 players with 13 or more points, while the Bears have six.
Beauparlant said the Bears are trying to develop that kind of depth.
“We hope we’re heading toward having three or four solid lines that can produce at any time, and also getting the occasional offense from the back end,” he said.
The coach said rookies Matt Rudin, Jack Gessert, Nathan Colwell and Austin Chavez have all taken big steps recently, adding to depth.
Rudin has seven points in his last four games, Gessert had three points on Saturday, Colwell has three points in his last three games, and Chavez has the best plus-minus mark of all defensemen on the team at plus-5.
“Austin Chavez is a fearless young guy who plays with his heart on his sleeve,” Beauparlant said. “He’s an excellent puck mover and skater and plays extremely physical. He’s taken strides to becoming a fixture in our lineup.”
Colwell will be out Friday night due to a concussion, but Beauparlant said that if all goes well, he will be back Saturday. Vince Stefan, Frankie Spellman and Conor Deal will be out Friday and Saturday, serving the final games of their six-game suspensions from a line brawl against the Wilderness.
Notes: The featured players will be Gessert on Friday and Steven Butts on Saturday. The game programs will include questions answered by each player. There will be a program signed by a player, and the holder of that program wins a picture of the player signed by the player.