The Kenai River Brown Bears will be focusing on getting off to a good start tonight when they face the Bismarck (North Dakota) Bobcats in the first of two straight 7:30 p.m. games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
A pattern has emerged during the course of the Bears’ 13-game North American Hockey League homestand, on which the squad is 4-4-1.
In two-game series, the Bears have lost 6-2, 7-1 and 6-3 on Friday. Kenai River has come back Saturday to win in a shootout, overtime and a tight one-goal contest.
“A big key for us is we haven’t started well in the first period on Friday,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “The focus for us Friday is to get out of the first period even or up one.
“That’s what we’ve done Saturday and it’s given us some success.”
In those Friday contests, Kenai River has been down 2-0, 4-0 and 2-1 after the first period. In the Saturday games, the Brown Bears had a 3-2 lead after one first period and were tied at 0 in the other two.
Granting the given that goaltending is always important, two other deciding factors will be special teams and Kenai River’s ability to block shots as both teams look to pick up important points in tight division standings.
The Brown Bears are 8-10-1-0, good for 17 points, fifth place and three points out of the playoffs in the Midwest Division. The Bobcats are 9-8-2-0, putting up 20 points to hold second in the Central Division.
On special teams, the squads are polar opposites. Kenai River has the top power play in the league with a 33.3 percent conversion rate, while the Bobcats are last at 7.8 percent.
But Bismarck shines on the penalty kill, succeeding 87.7 percent of the time for the third best percentage in the league. The Bears kill off 67.2 percent of power plays, second worst in the league.
“Like any other weekend, it’s going to come down to who executes, who wins the special teams battle and who gets good goaltending,” Petrich said.
One area where the coach said the Brown Bears must execute is wings blocking shots from the point.
Bismarck swept Kenai River 3-2 and 4-3 on Oct. 13 and 14 in North Dakota.
“They have three solid lines that can play and defensemen that can jump in on the attack,” Petrich said. “They generated a lot of goals against us from the point and on rebounds on shots from the point.
“We have to get better at blocking shots. It has not gotten to the level I want it at.”
While Kenai River has been up and down on a nightly basis, Bimarck’s peaks and valleys have been flatter. The two wins against the Brown Bears were part of a six-game winning streak. The Bobcats then lost two in overtime, then three of their next four. But Petrich said Friday’s 5-1 victory in Fairbanks shows how good the veteran Bobcats can be.
Kenai River is third in the league with 61 goals. Luke Radetic is tied for fourth in the league with 23 points, coming on 11 goals and 12 assists. Gil Garcia is tied for 16th in the league with 18 points coming on 12 goals and six assists. At the age of 16, Eagle River’s Cam McDonald runs the point on the power play and his 15 points, all on assists, tie him for sixth in points among defensemen.
Ty Enns leads Bismarck with 20 points, tied for 10th in the league. But fellow forward Matej Murin hurt the Bears in the first series, with a hat trick in the first game and an assist in the second game.
Bears notes: Brown Bears forward Carter Wade will serve the second game of a two-game suspension tonight. …
The Bears are partnering with Alyeska Tire to raise food for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank during the holidays.
Friday and Saturday, fans get a raffle ticket for every food item donated. Saturday during the third period, the drawing will be held. In addition to other prizes, the grand prize is $250 worth of gift cards.