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Ice Dogs can’t overcome early breakdowns

FAIRBANKS – The Fairbanks Ice Dogs no longer control their own destiny – but that doesn\’t concern them much.

Their bid to have home-ice advantage for the first round of the upcoming North American Hockey League postseason suffered a blow Friday night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in a 4-1 loss to the Wenatchee Wild.

\”Obviously it\’s disappointing. We\’d like to get (second place in the West Division),\” Ice Dogs coach Josh Hauge said. \”But I thought we took some significant strides as a hockey team. We\’re playing harder than we have in the past.\” 

The Ice Dogs\’ defeat coupled with the Alaska Avalanche\’s 7-3 victory Friday over Kenai River means Fairbanks trails the Avalanche by one point for second place in the West.

Wenatchee (44-10-3), which has defeated Fairbanks in seven of eight matchups this season, has long sown up first place in the West and a berth in the league\’s Robertson Cup championship tournament. 

The second-place squad will also qualify, and the Ice Dogs (31-21-4) and Avalanche (31-19-7) are guaranteed to face off next week with that at stake. 

What remains to be determined is who will host the first two games – and a potential fifth and deciding game – in the first-round series. The regular-season standings end tonight with the Fairbanks-Wenatchee and Alaska-Kenai River contests. The Ice Dogs need a win and help from last-place Kenai River if they are to overtake the Avalanche and start the series at home.

\”If we play well it doesn\’t matter if we play at home or on the road,\” Hauge said, adding that the Ice Dogs hope to take care of business against the Avalanche in fewer than five games.

A poor first period doomed the Ice Dogs Friday as they fell behind 3-0 – two of the goals came just after Ice Dogs penalties expired – and never recovered. Particularly painful was a score by Wenatchee forward Nathan Sliwinski with 2 seconds remaining, as he beat Ice Dogs goalie Mike Taffe on a rush to the net by sneaking a shot just inside the right post after the Ice Dogs failed to clear the puck. 

\”Falling down 3-0 to a good team, it\’s hard to come back,\” forward Kyle Politz said. \”Three little mistakes ended up in our net.\”

Taffe, who saved 15 of Wenatchee\’s 18 first-period shots, was pulled in favor of Joe Phillippi to start the second period. Phillippi stopped all 14 of the shots he saw the rest of the way. 

The Ice Dogs, in front of a near-capacity crowd of 2,116, came out with energy in the second period. They were also feisty, as a mohawked Aaron McGill and Sean O\’Rourke engaged in fights three seconds apart before the period was three minutes old.

Fairbanks finally got on the scoreboard with 5:23 left in the second period as Matt Millis was credited with tipping in a Josh Nelson shot from near the blue line past Brendan Jensen (30 saves) to make the score 3-1.

Fairbanks nearly pulled within a goal when McGill was pulled down on a breakaway in the final minute of the second period. Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt called for a penalty shot over the public address microphone but only a two-minute hooking penalty was assessed and Fairbanks couldn\’t capitalize.

Phillippi left his net in favor of an extra attacker with 2 minutes left in the third and Nolan Youngmun, an Anchorage native, sealed the game for Wenatchee 35 seconds later.

Despite the tough opening 20 minutes, Hauge wasn\’t discouraged after the game.

\”I\’ll take my 20 guys over any 20 guys in the league if they play like that,\” Hauge said. \”And I think we\’ll be better tomorrow.\”

Said the shaggy-haired Politz, who like most of his teammates was sporting his attempt at a mustache: \”We battled the entire game so we deserved maybe more than we got.\” 

Then he explained the thin line above his upper lip. \”It\’s mustache March … the team bonding thing,\” said Politz, whose jersey was among those auctioned off for hundreds of dollars during the intermissions. \”This has been me pretty much for two months, and it\’s just whiskers.\”

Contact staff writer Matias Saari at 459-7591.