JANESVILLE, WI — Just a little under seven weeks ago, the Jets were preparing for a Saturday night rubber match against the Kenai River Brown Bears, who had just handed Janesville a 3-1 loss the night before.
The Friday win saw the Brown Bears extend their win streak to six. They had won 16 of their last 18 games. On the flip side, Janesville had just lost its third in a row, and its ninth of its last 10 games.
The Jets won a high-emotion game that Saturday to launch into the holiday break with positivity. The Brown Bears took a single point from the shootout loss and maintained a lead on the Midwest Division.
Now the Jets are winners of four straight and five of their last six. The Brown Bears’ division lead has vanished, and they now trail their in-state rivals, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, by 15 points. Dating back to their last trip to the Janesville Ice Arena, Kenai River has won two of its last 12.
Two teams trending in very different directions face off tonight to open a three-game series.
Jets assistant coach Lennie Childs acknowledges that context is important when preparing for an opponent, but like everything, there’s a balance needed.
“You always have to be aware of the standings and where teams are at in their season,” Childs said. “But more important than that is riding your own highs and focusing on your own success. We always prepare as though our opponent will bring the best version of itself, because we have to bring the best versions of ourselves.”
The three-game series offers a six-point opportunity, humongous for both teams. Kenai River (.600) and Janesville (.451) hold the Midwest Division’s third- and fourth-best points percentages, respectively. The Chippewa Steel’s light schedule (eight fewer games played than Kenai River) contorts reality a bit when looking at the standings. Their .649 points percentage trails Fairbanks (.767), but puts them in the lead for the second and final home-ice position in the first round of the Robertson Cup Playoffs.
With the exception of the four-in-four schedule at the NAHL Showcase, a tough workload shouldered by each of the 26 member clubs, Janesville’s 2019-20 schedule included four three-game series. This is the third of those four, with an atypical one coming next month when the Jets travel to Chippewa on Thursday March 5 before hosting the Minnesota Wilderness for a pair.
Each of the previous two were series losses to the Ice Dogs.
More than two-thirds through the NAHL season means everyone is feeling the proverbial “grind” of junior hockey, but preparing for a three-game set still needs to be addressed differently, said Childs.
“We tailored the week’s schedule just a bit,” said the assistant coach and former Jet. “A bit different style of workouts, and maybe we didn’t go as long in practice as we usually do, just to be prepared for guys to give it their all for three games. To start, there might be some tailoring to minutes for certain guys, too, to make sure they’re fresh throughout. But of course where we are in the standings, you have to take it one game at a time. So right now, it’s about Thursday and Thursday only.”
Complicating things from a roster construction perspective was the week’s loss of forward Jake Dunlap. The UMass Amherst commit missed last weekend with a minor injury, and targeted a return to the lineup for this series, but was called up by the USHL’s Fargo Force for the remainder of the 2019-20 season. Dunlap was trusted up and down the Jets’ lineup, and played both center and left wing in the first few months of his junior hockey career. His 16 points in 28 games this season placed him sixth on the team in points-per-game (0.57).
Losing a player to a USHL advancement can seem bittersweet, especially in a playoff push like the Jets are in now, but Childs said this is all about opportunity, both for Dunlap and for depth forwards on this Jets roster.
“This is what we’re built upon,” Childs said. “We develop and advance in every aspect. It’s who we are. It’s our vision and it’s how we do things. You always have to be prepared for things like this, whether you’re the coach doing the lineups or a young player developing in the wings. Now it’s about the ‘next man up’ mentality. We’ve been working with some of those guys waiting in the wings on their skills, their positive attitude, and this is their moment to use the training they’ve gone through to show up big.”
RPI commit Max Itagaki is one of those. After sitting out the Wilderness series, he had two assists and a goal last weekend. Another is Ryan Bottrill, said Childs.
“Bottrill has a great skill set there that not many people have seen yet,” he said. “Bottrill’s been working hard in practice and hasn’t quite yet seen that effort pay off in games. For a guy like Carter Hottmann, it is right now. He’s been playing great and points are coming for him now. He’s held down lines three or four, wherever he’s played, and contributes big on the penalty kill. On the back end, too, we’ve been seeing more out of guys like Xavier LaPointe, who sat a lot in the beginning but worked hard on developing his skill and his skating stride. Now he’s logging big minutes and doing well with them.”
A big six points are up for grabs this weekend, beginning tonight.
|1||Fairbanks Ice Dogs||45||33-9-1-2||69|
|2||Kenai River Brown Bears||45||24-15-3-3||54|
|6||Springfield Jr. Blues||43||13-26-2-2||30|
Thur Feb 6 | 7:05pm CT
Fri Feb 7 | 7:05pm CT
Sat Feb 8 | 7:05pm CT
Record: 18-22-1-0 (4th, Midwest)
Home Record: 6-8-1-0
Last Ten Games: 6-4-0-0
Goals For/Game: 2.76 (19th)
Goals Against/Game: 3.61 (20th)
Shots For/Game: 29.10 (21st)
Shots Against/Game: 33.41 (19th)
Power Play: 21.4% (11th)
Penalty Kill: 82.4% (10th)
Top Scorers: F Nick Nardella (41GP—15G-23A—38PTS); F Isaac Novak (35GP—18G-14A—32PTS); F Charlie Schoen (25GP—3G-18A—21PTS)
Goaltenders: Grant Riley (12-16-1-0, 3.30 GAA, .902 SV%); Riley Sims (3-2-0-0, 3.33 GAA, .898 SV%)
Rostered Commitments: F Jake Dunlap (UMass Amherst); D Grant Hindman (Lake Superior State); F Max Itagaki (RPI); F Parker Lindauer (Northern Michigan); F Nick Nardella (Michigan Tech); F Isaac Novak (Wisconsin); G Grant Riley (Boston College); D Casey Roepke (Wisconsin); F Jackson Sabo (Air Force); F Charlie Schoen (Arizona State)
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS
Record: 24-15-3-3 (2nd, Midwest)
Road Record: 7-11-1-1
Last Ten Games: 2-6-2-0
Goals For/Game: 3.73 (5th)
Goals Against/Game: 3.49 (19th)
Shots For/Game: 34.16 (4th)
Shots Against/Game: 37.02 (24th)
Power Play: 22.0% (10th)
Penalty Kill: 73.8% (23rd)
Top Scorers: F Zach Krajnik (44GP—18G-31A—49PTS); F Logan Ritchie (45GP—17G-24A—41PTS); F Peter Morgan (43GP—15G-24A—39PTS)
Goaltenders: Landon Pavlisin (21-10-1-3, 3.17 GAA, .910 SV%); Danny Fraga (3-5-1-0, 3.88 GAA, .904 SV%)
Rostered Commitments: F Skylar Gutierrez (Alaska-Anchorage); D Bryan Huggins (Lake Superior State); F Zach Krajnik (Alaska-Anchorage); F Porter Schachle (Alaska-Anchorage); F Theo Thrun (Western Michigan)