FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks Ice Dogs are one game away from advancing to the next round of the North American Hockey League playoffs.
After escaping with a one-goal victory in the first game of its best-of-five Midwest Division semifinals against the Minnesota Magicians on Friday, Fairbanks brought its A-game in hopes of returning to Alaska with a commanding lead in the opening-round series.
The Ice Dogs did just that.
There was no sign of rust or nerves Saturday, as the defending NAHL Robertson Cup national champions cruised to a 4-1 victory over the Magicians in Richfield, Minnesota.
Now the second-seeded Ice Dogs bring a 2-0 series lead back to Fairbanks. They need to beat No. 3 Minnesota once in three tries at the Big Dipper Ice Arena to move on to the Midwest Division finals.
“We played better than we did on Friday, that’s for sure,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said in a phone interview. “We put ourselves into a disadvantage by giving up the first goal, but I thought the guys settled down after that and improved their pace and play. Once we settled down, we started making some plays and were able to put some pucks in the back of the net.”
Just as was the case during Game 1 on Friday, the host Magicians started fast and skated to an early lead.
On Saturday, it was Pieter Von Steinbergs who gave Minnesota a 1-0 advantage only 1:40 into the opening period.
However, the Ice Dogs answered offensively and goaltender Erik Gordon made 19 saves to secure the win.
After squeaking out a hard-fought win in Game 1, Stewart said he feltit was a beneficial experience for many of the Ice Dogs who had never appeared in an NAHL playoff game.
Following Saturday’s win, the coach said his players looked more comfortable and they should be even more prepared when the two rivals meet for Game 3 at 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the Big Dipper.
“There are certain guys that took a step in the right direction,” he said. “Some guys still have a little more work to get to where we need them to be. But at this point, they’ve played a few (playoff) games and now they understand the level they need to be at.”
Among the Fairbanks players who stepped up in Game 2 was forward Hampus Eriksson, who netted the goal that evened the score 1-1 at the 9:52 mark of the first period.
Eriksson, a Gavle, Sweden, native helped the Ice Dogs garner a 2-1 lead in the middle frame, as he and Aaron McPheters tallied assists on Benton Maass’
power-play goal 9:43 into the period.
“He’s our best forward, so it’s a big help when he is making plays,” Stewart said. “He is still learning but he’s a hockey player. He gets it. He was definitely a big part of our success tonight.”
Although Eriksson made his presence felt, he wasn’t the only Fairbanks player who made a difference.
Hunter Wendt extended the team’s lead to 3-1 midway through the third period before Bauer Neudecker put home an empty-net goal to seal the deal in the final minute of action.
Cayden Cahill and Luke Orysiuk recorded assists on Wendt’s score.
Minnesota goaltender Ivan Prosvetov finished with 29 saves in defeat.
Saturday’s win was the 11th consecutive victory for Fairbanks. The team won 22 of its final 25 regular season games before beginning its title defense.
After sweeping the Minnesota portion of the series, the Ice Dogs need just one more victory to advance to the Midwest Division championships, where they’d meet the winner of top-seeded Janesville’s series with the Coulee Region Chill.
The Chill and Jets split their first two games of their series this weekend.
All Fairbanks is focused on is taking care of what it can control. The team did that in Minnesota, and now it’ll be in a good position when the series resumes
“Anytime you can take a multiple-game lead in a series, you put yourself in a better situation to win,” Stewart said. “That’s a good thing, but now our focus has to be on improving what we did in these first two games. If we do that, hopefully we’ll be in position to get a win in Game 3.”
If the Ice Dogs don’t sweep the series, Games 4 and 5 are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 22 and 23.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.