The Fairbanks Ice Dogs continued to use defense to climb back into the North American Hockey League playoff hunt, taking a 2-1 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears on Friday and 3-1 Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Ice Dogs of Trevor Stewart have never been slouches on defense, but have been particularly potent on offense.
In his five complete seasons with the Ice Dogs, which include two Robertson Cups, Stewart’s offenses have been in the top three four times and led the league twice. The defenses have never been lower than ninth, but also have been in the top three just once — last season when the Dogs had the top offense and defense in the league.
As local fans continued to find out this weekend, Fairbanks is able to hang its hat this season on defense.
“They’re a championship team, and championship teams don’t lay down very long,” said Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton.
Only four teams in the league have scored less than Fairbanks, but the Ice Dogs have used a defense ranked 14th in the league to put themselves in a position to make the playoffs.
After also defeating Kenai River 1-0 on Thursday, Fairbanks is 18-22-2-1 and three points ahead of the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill for the final playoff spot in the Midwest Division. The Chill lost Saturday to fall further behind Fairbanks in the points.
The Bears are 10-30-2-0 and fell to 17 points out of the playoffs with the sweep.
The Ice Dogs also lead the Alaska Ravn Cup 5-3 after entering the weekend trailing in the season series, and have won seven of eight, a stretch in which they have given up just 11 goals.
“They’ve been very defensive-minded games — 2-1 and 1-0,” Worlton said Friday night. “It’s becoming a rivalry again.”
The Bears fell to 2-5 on the current homestand.
Stewart said the plan is never to be near the rear of the league in scoring.
“We’re getting chances, we’re just not finding the back of the net,” he said. “In order to win games, that means we have to not give up as many chances.”
Goalie Josh Benson, acquired in early December, has played a big part in limiting goals. Benson made 21 saves Friday and 29 Saturday, and has allowed just two goals in four games.
“He’s been very good,” Stewart said. “He’s been a calming presence.”
Meanwhile, the Bears continued to struggle on offense, with just nine goals in the last six games.
“We’re either really hot or really cold, and right now, we’re cold,” Worlton said.
Friday, the Bears took a 1-0 lead in the first period when Alex Dingeldien scored unassisted after a massive scrum in front of the Fairbanks net.
As the game wore on, with the way goalie Colt Hanks and his 27 saves were backing the defense, Worlton said he thought one goal could be enough.
But then Anchorage’s Cayden Cahill snuck a penalty shot past Hanks with 4:11 left in the second period.
“We were down a goal and that got us back to even,” Stewart said. “That was a big point in the game for us.”
Hampus Eriksson scored the game-winner with 14 seconds left in the second period. The goal came just after a Fairbanks power play and after a protracted battle in front of the net.
Worlton was happy with the way his team responded in the third, including generating a couple good chances after pulling the goalie with 37 seconds.
But Benson and the defense secured the key road win.
“I don’t think we woke up out of the funk we’ve been in the last few weeks until the third period,” Worlton said. “We woke up in the third period and it was good to see.”
Saturday, in front of a crowd of 594, Wasilla product Tanner Schachle got the Ice Dogs out to a 1-0 lead in the first period with help from Erkka Vanska and Connor Chilton. Fairbanks then extended the lead to 3-0 in the second period with goals from Hunter Wendt and Hampus Eriksson.
Kenai River responded just 26 seconds after the third goal with a strike from Lucas Carroll with 1:24 left in the period, but the damage had been done.
“It was a combination of everything,” Worlton said Saturday night. “Our intensity level wasn’t where it needed to be all weekend, and their goalie made some big saves, and we missed the net on a few.”
In the second and third periods combined, the Ice Dogs outshot the Bears 26-17.
Hanks stopped 33 shots Saturday manning the net for Kenai River.
The two teams will be right back at it next weekend, when Kenai River travels north to Fairbanks for a pair of games Friday and Saturday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
Ice Dogs 3, Brown Bears 1
Fairbanks 1 2 0 — 3
Kenai River 0 1 0 — 1
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Schachle (Vanska, Chilton), 6:43. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Wendt (Blueger, Cahill), 10:47; 3. Fairbanks, Eriksson (Gavin, Schachle), 13:10; 4. Kenai River, Carroll (Warman, Lipe), 13:36. Penalties — none.
Third period — no scoring. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 20:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 10-14-12—36; Kenai River 13-9-8—30.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Benson (30 shots, 29 saves); Kenai River, Hanks (36 shots, 33 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 0 for 3; Kenai River 0 for 3.
Ice Dogs 2, Brown Bears 1
Fairbanks 0 2 0 — 2
Kenai River 1 0 0 — 1
First period — 1. Kenai River, Dingeldien (un.), 4:28. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Cahill, penalty shot, 15:49; 3. Fairbanks, Eriksson (Gavin), 19:46. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 6:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 9-12-8—29; Kenai River 4-11-7—22.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Benson (22 shots, 21 saves); Kenai River, Hanks (29 shots, 27 saves).