The Kenai River Brown Bears believe in magic, or more specifically magicians. Minnesota Magicians.
The Magicians pulled a playoff berth out of the hat for the Bears on Sunday, defeating the host Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill 7-4 in the final game of the North American Hockey League regular season.
The loss left the Chill one point behind the Bears in the race for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the Midwest Division, giving Kenai River its sixth-straight berth in the playoffs.
Kenai River travels to Fairbanks for Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Games 3 and, if necessary, 4 are at the Soldotna Sports Complex on April 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. Game 5 would be in Fairbanks on April 12 at 7:30 p.m..
The day started for the Bears in Fairbanks, where they had left the door open to the Chill by losing to the Ice Dogs on Friday and Saturday.
It was a brilliant flight down from Golden Heart City, with Denali in full effect, but the Bears’ attention was inside the plane on stolen glances at smartphones as the crucial game unwound thousands of miles away.
“The flight attendant was getting pretty mad at us,” Bears forward Alec Butcher said.
Minnesota entered the third period leading 5-3 as the Bears touched down and hit their locker room to watch their fate be decided.
“It definitely wasn’t the best of times,” Kenai River forward Conor Deal said. “We were banking on Minnesota to win.
“The whole team went to the rink to order pizzas. There was a huge eruption and a yell when they won.”
The Chill lost seven straight to miss the playoffs, but don’t tell the Bears they didn’t earn a playoff spot.
Kenai River had to play Fairbanks, the league regular-season champion, 16 times. Forty-six of 60 games were against playoff teams, with the Bears facing only six nonplayoff teams in their final 48 games. Further, 22 of the 60 games were against division champions.
Even with that daunting slate, the Bears finished 28-24-8 to tie for the second-most points in franchise history.
“It comes down to we found points where Coulee didn’t,” Butcher said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the last game. It could have been the first game.”
Butcher, who will play Division I hockey next season for Sacred Heart, felt a whirlwind of emotions over the weekend. He clinched the NAHL’s scoring title, but did not have any points in the losses at Fairbanks, breaking a string of seven games with at least a point.
Butcher left the ice with an injury March 22 after blocking a shot against Fairbanks, but he said his line had its chances this weekend and refused to blame an injury.
“I’m gonna say there are no excuses,” he said. “I’d block a shot again if it ensured a win.
“I’d take a puck anywhere right now. I want to win and see the team continue throughout the playoffs.”
Deal said the players that are aging out, as well as those going to college, were distraught Saturday that their Bears career could be over.
“We don’t want to experience that again,” Deal said. “I think it was a little wakeup call for the guys that are coming back — how disappointed some of the 93s were.
“We don’t want that disappointment. We want to push as far as we can into the playoffs.”
In the way, as always, are the Ice Dogs. Fairbanks won the Robertson Cup in 2011 with Beauparlant as an assistant, and Colton Wolter, Nick Hinz and Tayler Munson can all earn their second Cup as Dogs this year.
Kenai River has faced Fairbanks four times in the playoffs and was swept every year except for last season, when the Dogs won a pulsating first-round series in five games.
The Bears have won just three times in 16 tries against the Ice Dogs this season.
“I would expect they’re going to be ready,” Beauparlant said. “They have three players that have won a national championship. I’m sure they’re going to keep that room grounded.”
Beauparlant also noted that the weekend play in the Midwest Division was a big feather in the cap for the league.
The Minnesota Wilderness, Magicians and Ice Dogs had nothing to play for, yet they swept two teams — the Bears and Chill — desperately trying to make the playoffs.
“It speaks to the players and their commitment to the sport, and the high coaching in the league across the board,” Beauparlant said. “It’s a tough league to crack. It’s a high-talent and hard-working league.”