Brad Joyal, BJOYAL@NEWSMINER.COM
After suffering a pair of losses to the New Jersey Titans in its last homestand two weekends ago, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs returned to their winning ways when the team played host to North American Hockey League Midwest Division rival Kenai River in the first game of the 2016-17 Ravn Cup Challenge at the Big Dipper Ice Arena on Friday night.
The Ice Dogs were never threatened by the Brown Bears, as they ultimately skated to a dominant 5-1 victory to earn their first Midwest Division win of the season.
“It’s always a nice to find a way to win,” Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart said after the Ice Dogs improved to 6-4-1 on the season. “I don’t think we were overly sharp, but it’s nice (to win) and we’re going to learn from it.”
“It was nice to see some guys gain some confidence and find the back of the net,” Stewart added.
As Fairbanks prepares to return to the Big Dipper for another matchup against Kenai River at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Stewart said it was good for the Ice Dogs to open the 13-game series with a win over the Brown Bears (0-9-1).
“This is very, very important,” the coach said. “Playing against our instate rival, we’ve been fortunate to get the Cup the last couple of years. The guys know what that means to guys who have been her before and they want to keep it in the room.”
Four different players found the back of the net for the Ice Dogs, as Aaron McPheters, Hunter Wendt, and Daniel Haider each netted goals before Colton Fletcher scored twice in the final period of play.
McPheters opened the scoring when he beat Kenai River goaltender Bailey Seagraves with a long, low wrist shot from the blue line 8:25 into the contest. The Anchorage native, who is comitted to play for Alaska Anchorage, was assisted by another another Anchorage commit, Daniel Haider, as well as defenseman Benton Maass.
Once Haider’s pass found McPheters’ stick, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defenseman said he just hoped for the best after rifiling a shot on goal.
“(Scoring) isn’t my specialty, I’m usually a pass-first kind of guy,” McPheters said. “I got lucky with the shot to find the back of the net. I was just trying to shoot it and not get buried, I saw somebody coming from the side trying to hit me.”
After Hunter Wendt netted a power play goal 5:49 into the opening period, Haider extended Fairbanks’ lead to 3-0 midway through the second period. As much credit as the forward deserves for finding the back of the net, it was defensema Marc Sullivan who put Haider in position to bury his third goal of the season. Maass sparked the rush into the Kenai River zone when he found Sullivan along the left wing boards, though Sullivan advanced the puck to the left faceoff dot before firing a pass through the zone.
Haider was waiting at the bottom of the opposite faceoff circle, and he made sure Sullivan’s nifty pass didn’t go to waste by fininshing off the play with a goal off a one-timer.
“It was really an unbelievable play by him, I just had to tap it in,” Haider said of Sullivan’s pass. “He’s worked hard every day and he deserves everything he gets. It was a great play by him and I was fortunate to be on the other end of it. It definitely feels good to score in front of the home crowd.”
Even though Fairbanks entered Friday with the top penalty kill in the NAHL (94.9%), the Brown Bears finally found the back of the net on their fifth power play of the night. Shayne Monahan buried Kenai River’s lone goal, as he beat Ice Dogs goaltender Joshua Carlos (17 saves) with a one-timer off a pass by Anthony Tzveyn 14:17 into the second period.
However, that was the only bright spot for the Brown Bears.
“That’s the only good thing about our team, our power play,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “Fairbanks is a good team, we always want to beat them. They’ve had the Ravn Cup for a long time, so we want to compete and hopefully come back with a better effort tomorrow.”
After failing to score a power play goal on eight tries against the Titans, Colton fletcher buried Fairbanks’ second power play goal of the night 7:34 into the final period. The forward added another goal 14:10 into the frame, as he beat Seagraves (25 saves) five-hole from the slot to give the Ice Dogs a 5-1 advantage.
Although the Ice Dogs had no trouble on Friday, McPheters said he and his teammates expect the Brown Bears to elevate their intensity in tonight’s rematch.
“For them, it’s like the Robertson Cup,” McPheters said. “It’s 13 games, but we’re just trying to get all the points that we can. It helps us in the division standings, we want to go into the playoffs as the highest seed we can get.”