For the second time in their seven-year history, the Kenai River Brown Bears are engaged in a tight race to make the playoffs.
The Bears have made the playoffs in five of their six completed seasons, but on three of those occasions a spot was sewn up before the faceoff on opening night because there were only four teams in the division.
Only once was the stretch run dramatic. After making the playoffs by 10 points in the 2010-11 campaign, things were much tighter in the 2011-12 season.
The Bears racked nine points in their last five games to finish two points in front of the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the North American Hockey League West Division.
With 19 games left in their season, the Bears are set up for a tight finish in the Midwest Division.
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs sit comfortably atop the division with 62 points, but the second through fifth positions in the division are separated by just nine points.
The Minnesota Wilderness have 52, the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill have 50, the Bears have 45 and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild have 43.
“It should be a lot of fun, compared to last year when every team knew they were in from day one,” Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “This is also a race for seeding and home-ice advantage.
“Those things are still within reach.”
The Wilderness have the easiest remaining schedule. The teams left on their slate have a combined record of .500.
For the Chill, that number is .559. The Bears and Wild face grueling stretch runs of .600 and .607, respectively.
“We’d have it no other way,” Beauparlant said. “We don’t want to back our way in. We don’t want to play against inferior competition.
“We want to play against good hockey teams and earn our way into the playoffs. Wenatchee is one of those teams.”
The Bears host the Wild at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex today, Friday and Saturday. Today the puck drops at 7 p.m., while opening faceoff is at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. After this series, just five homes games remain in the regular season.
Wenatchee is coming off a runner-up finish in the Robertson Cup last season, but the franchise and all the players moved to Texas after the season.
Head coach Bliss Littler remained. The coach with the most junior wins in USA Hockey reloaded with a young squad featuring 11 players in high school, but that squad has matured as a playoff contender.
“I wouldn’t say they are young anymore,” Beauparlant said. “They’re a team that has proven they can hang with and beat the best teams in the league.”
The Bears are 5-1 against the Wild this season.
“They are similar to us,” Beauparlant said. “They have a nice mix of young players and veterans throughout their roster.
“That’s why our games are so exciting and fast-paced. These are two teams that can skate and work every inch of the ice.”
That mix of talent showed Wednesday, when the NAHL announced the rosters for this season’s Top Prospects Tournament from Feb. 17 to 18 in Troy, Mich.
Both the Bears and the Wild put two players on the 18U Selects, a team of the top under-18 talent in the league. Sebastian Fuchs and Nathan Colwell made it for the Bears, while Parker Tuomie and Chase Perry made it for the Wild.
Carson Vance, who played for the Bears last season and has spent time in the Tier I United State Hockey League this season, also made the team from the Janesville (Wis.) Jets.
This is the first time the Bears have placed a player on the team. Beauparlant said the team is chosen by NHL Central Scouting and the NAHL Competition Committee.
“(Austin) Chavez was in the mix, as well, heading into the final night of discussion, from what I gather,” Beauparlant said. “It’s unfortunate he wasn’t able to crack the roster, but that shows he’s a high-end prospect.
“To have two players selected is pretty special.”
The Bears’ representatives on the Midwest team are Vince Stefan, Jake Davidson and Conor Deal. All have played for Kenai River for three years.
Beauparlant said this is a great chance for those players to get in front of scouts. The coach said players that may have more points than the three chosen also are getting a lot of college interest.
“We want to give as many players as possible the opportunity to get to the next level,” Beauparlant said.
Coming off a stretch of over a week without a game, Beauparlant said the team has been concentrating on giving back to the community as well as getting ready for the stretch run.
The team spent last weekend in Homer meeting students at Homer Middle School, having a skills competition with the Homer Youth Hockey Association, having an exhibition game, having a meal at the Homer Elks Lodge and hosting a skate with the Bears.
“It gave the guys a chance to recharge,” Beauparlant said. “It was so well-received we are already starting to plan a similar event for the Kenai-Soldotna area, hopefully sometime in February.
“We want to make it a yearly thing.”
The Bears also prepped for the Wild by trading Steven Butts to Great Falls (Mont.) of the Tier III American West Hockey League for Aaron McInnis, a player with a 1993 birthdate from Anchorage.
Beauparlant said McInnis gives the Bears more speed and more scoring.
Bears notes: Christian Luiten is recovered from a concussion and ready for the weekend. ... The Bears will auction off Powerade sweaters between periods Friday and Saturday.