FAIRBANKS – The Fairbanks Ice Dogs trailed only 2-1 at the end of the first period of Friday night’s North American Hockey League series opener against the Aston Rebels.
Then the penalty-box doors in the Big Dipper Ice Arena opened too many times for the Ice Dogs in the second period. The infractions played a role in Fairbanks’ 6-4 loss to the East Division-leading and playoff bound visitors from Aston, Pennsylvania.
The Rebels were on the power play five times in the middle period and they capitalized twice with shots from left circle by defensemen Michael Underwood and Brennan Kapcheck at 13:01 and 17:15 of the period, respectively.
“I think most of them were lazy penalties, so those are always the ones that are harder to kill. The penalties that you don’t have to take,’’ Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said.
“I think that’s difficult and at the end of the day, you don’t get a play and a clear on the penalty kill,’’ he continued, “and the puck is in the back of your net. It kind of sinks momentum.”
The Ice Dogs, with goals from Christina Sanda, Nolan Schaeffer, Grayson Gavin and Samuel Ruffin and a combined 27 saves from goaltenders Josh Benson and Josh Sarlo, saw their fifth-place record in the Midwest Division slip to 14-22-2-1 for 31 points in the standings.
Last season’s Robertson Cup national champions missed making ground on the fourth-place Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill, who lost 3-1 Friday to the host Minnesota Wilderness. The Chill (16-18-2-0) are three points ahead of the Ice Dogs.
The top four teams in each of the NAHL’s four divisions advance to the playoffs.
Andrew Bellant scored a hat trick and Mareks Mitens made 17 saves Friday for the Rebels (31-6-1-0 for 63 points).
Aston finished the game 4 for 7 on the power play and Fairbanks ended 1 for 6. Schaeffer provided the Ice Dogs’ only man-advantage conversion with a blast from the left point with 15.7 seconds left in the second period to cut Aston’s lead to 4-2.
“Hampus (Eriksson) won the (faceoff) draw clean and Grayson got in there and got it to me,” Schaeffer said. “So I gave it to Sully (Marc Sullivan), who gave it back to me.”
Gavin also gave Fairbanks a little momentum at 49 seconds into the third period. The Ice Dogs forward trimmed the Rebels’ lead to 4-3 with a shot from the right circle that cleared a screen and got past Mitens.
At 8:58 of the third, Bellant interrupted the Ice Dogs’ surge while he was sandwiched by Schaeffer and Ice Dogs left wing Daniel Haider during a rush. The Rebels right wing managed to strong-arm a shot past Sarlo, who took over the netminding duties from Benson at the start of the final period.
Bellant, who leads Aston with 23 goals, said little things made the difference for the Rebels on Friday.
“We kind of started off slow and the after the first period, we came in (to their locker room) and talked about doing little things, sticking to the process,’’ he said. “And we stick to our forecheck and work them down low and we get to the middle, and we’ve just got to get pucks to the net. It started working out for us.”
Bellant, aided by Gianluca Esteves and Drew Blackmun’s third assist of the night, scored during a power play at 18:12 of the third. Ruffin, with helpers from Luke Orysiuk and Sanda, scored for the Ice Dogs with 1 second left in the game.
Sanda and Aston’s Evgeny Yakolev scored the series’ first goals in a 29-second span in the opening period.
Sanda cut across the front of the crease at 10:34 and tapped in Ryan Kero’s centering pass from the left side of the back of the net. Ruffin also assisted.
At 11:03, Yakolev swooped around the net to the left side of the crease to pop in a rebound of Carter Woolley’s shot from the mid slot.
Bellant snapped the 1-all tie with 13.2 seconds left in the period with a power-play shot from the top of the right circle that hopped in the slot and got past Benson.
The teams wrap up the weekend and season series today at 7:30 p.m.
Aston swept the Ice Dogs in Pennsylvania on Jan. 6 and 7.
Contact sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter: @newsminersports.