The Kenai River Brown Bears head into the final weekend of the North American Hockey League regular season in control of their playoff destiny.
That control comes courtesy of the Minnesota Magicians, who skated to a 3-1 victory over the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill on Thursday night. It was the fifth-straight loss for the Chill, with all defeats coming by two or more goals.
With the loss, the Chill fall to 31-27-0 and remain two points behind the Brown Bears in the chase for the fourth playoff spot in the Midwest Division. Both the Chill and Bears have two games left, so if Kenai River collects at least three points in 7:30 p.m. games today and Saturday at the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the Bears are in the playoffs.
The Bears, who have 10 points in their last seven games, are 28-22-8 for 64 points, tied for the second-best point mark in franchise history as they chase a sixth-straight playoff berth. The 2011-12 unit set the franchise mark with 66 points to slip into the playoffs by two points.
But they have little room for error this weekend because the Chill, with more wins, holds the tiebreaker over the Bears. The Chill host the Minnesota Wilderness today and are 6-5 against the Wilderness this season. Sunday, the Chill finish their season with another game against the Magicians. They are 7-4 against the Magicians.
The Bears must play at a place the Ice Dogs lost just six times this season — twice at the paws of the Bears.
Kenai River also is very much in the race for the third playoff spot in the Midwest Division.
Just one point ahead of Kenai River is the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, which also owns the tiebreaker over the Bears due to a better head-to-head record. The Wild host the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings today and Saturday. The two squads have split two games this season.
The Wings have won nine straight games and are one point behind the Austin (Minn.) Bruins in the race for the Central Division title. The Wild have one win and three points in their last four games.
“No matter what the situation, we need to focus on what we are doing,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “More than likely, we’re going to need two to three points this weekend to secure a spot.”
Last weekend at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, the Bears picked up three points in two games against the Ice Dogs, losing 3-2 in a shootout Friday and winning 4-2 Saturday.
“It’s one of those situations where when you play well you want to get right to the next game,” Beauparlant said. “I think the guys are ready to get going and see how everything shakes out after this weekend.”
The Bears have just three wins in 14 tries against Fairbanks, which has clinched the league’s top record, but the play has been much more even of late.
Kenai River started 0-6-1 vs. the Ice Dogs, but is 3-3-1 since then.
“I think it’s our mind-set — we believe we can win and we know what it takes to be an elite team in the league now,” Beauparlant said when asked about the improvement against Fairbanks. “We played well at the start of the year, but I think a lot of it was excitement to be back playing.
“Now, I think our guys get what it truly takes to be successful.”
The veterans on the team know what it takes to win a game at the Big Dipper when the stakes are highest, having taken a game there in an eventual five-game playoff loss last year.
“The guys can draw on past experience and help the younger guys understand how to handle the things that will come up this weekend,” Beauparlant said.
Even though Fairbanks has nothing to play for, Beauparlant, an assistant there the last three seasons, expects Fairbanks’ best. The Bears snapped a six-game winning streak and 13-game point streak for the Dogs on Saturday.
“It’s not in their culture, or any team’s culture, to just lie down,” Beauparlant said. “They want to go into the playoffs on a strong note.”
The Bears just want to go into the playoffs. Beauparlant said that, and not nearing the franchise record for points, is what matters.
“We play to be in the playoffs and have a chance to compete for the Robertson Cup,” he said.
The Bears will not have defenseman Judd Loewenstein this weekend due to a concussion. Forward Jacob Wolter also will be suspended Friday due to a game misconduct for kneeing in Saturday’s game.
Alec Butcher, who goes into the final two games with a four-point lead in the race to be the NAHL’s leading scorer, will play after leaving Saturday’s game after a shot hit him in the arm.
Bears notes: The team gave out end-of-season awards Sunday at the Feed the Bears dinner at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex:
Community service award — Vince Stefan. Beauparlant said Stefan spearheaded a lot of projects in the community and has been a recognizable face in the community all three of his years here.
PAC fitness award — Conor Deal. Beauparlant said the award could have gone to several players, but assistant Scott Johnson pointed out that Deal was the player motivating other players in the fitness arena from Day 1. He also leads the dynamic warmup and stretching before games.
Players’ player award — Judd Loewenstein. Beauparlant said this award is voted on by the team, so it is a special one to get. The award shows Loewenstein is a good sounding board, a good friend and a good teammate.
Unsung hero award — Gustav Berglund. Beauparlant said the award goes to a player that doesn’t get a lot of press and just goes about his business anyway.
Brown Bear award — Jake Davidson. Beauparlant said this award goes to the player that exemplifies being a Brown Bear. That means encompassing the values of community, education and competing.