Ice Dogs avoid elimination, force Game 4

FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks Ice Dogs aren’t going down without a fight.

After dropping the first two games of the North American Hockey League Midwest Division final series to the Janesville Jets in Janesville, Wisconsin, last weekend, the Ice Dogs found themselves in a familiar situation Friday night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.

As was the case throughout the regular season, when Fairbanks was fighting for a spot in the NAHL playoffs, the team answered the call.

Although the top-seeded Jets put 16 more shots on goal, the Ice Dogs still managed to manufacture their best performance of the series to earn a 3-1 victory in Game 3.

“It feels great,” Fairbanks goaltender Erik Gordon said after making 35 saves. “Obviously things weren’t looking good being down 2-0, but we’ve come back all year. We were battling to make the playoffs and now that we’re here, we’re going to keep pushing.”

With the win, Fairbanks and Janesville square off in Game 4 at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Big Dipper. If the Ice Dogs can muster another victory, the two rivals would meet at the Big Dipper for a winner-takes-all Game 5 at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Janesville came out firing from the opening faceoff, as it peppered Gordon with shots early and often. However, Gordon, the NAHL Midwest Division Goaltender of the Year, weathered the storm to keep the game scoreless late in the first period.

“You always want to come out and give the team our best chance to win,” he said.

“He was up, he was out, he was square,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said of Gordon, who made 15 stops in the first period. “He was exceptional tonight.”

With Gordon serving as the final line of defense, Fairbanks eventually struck first when team captain Ryan Kero rattled a wrist shot off the post and past Janesville netminder Jacob Barczewski with 2:15 remaining in the opening frame.

After allowing Janesville to generate the majority of the scoring chances early, the Ice Dogs felt fortunate to head to the locker room with a 1-0 advantage after 20 minutes of action.

“I thought it was huge for our team,” Stewart said. “Our leadership stepped up at the right time and made a big play. I thought we settled down a little more after that.”

In the second period, it was Barczewski who made big save after big save.

But that didn’t stop the Ice Dogs from attacking the net, and they eventually extended their lead to 2-0 when forward Erkka Vanska snuck a wrist shot past Barczewski (17 saves) while Bauer Neudecker screened him in front of the goal.

“Our biggest thing is being able to get the momentum going on the ice,” said Vanska, an Espoo, Finland, native. “We want to get the puck into their zone and outwork them. On that shift, we outworked their team on the ice and were able to put it in.”

Fairbanks forward Cayden Cahill netted a power-play goal to make it a 3-0 game 18:48 into the middle frame. The Anchorage native beat Barczerski’s blocker with a backhand as he crashed the net and received a crossing pass from Hunter Wendt.

Janesville finally lit the lamp when Jack Gates buried a nifty backhand of his own 13:14 into the third period, though by that point, the Ice Dogs had established control of the game.

“We have to play our hockey and play hard for 60 minutes,” Jets head coach Joe Dibble said. “They’re not going to give us anything and I think the way they played tonight was a big wakeup call for our guys.”

Although Fairbanks needs a victory tonight to even the series 2-2, Stewart said his team’s mindset has drastically changed since last weekend in Janesville.

“The guys were hoping that we could win, but now they know that we can win,” he said.

Vanska agreed, adding that he believes the team is in a good position to force a Game 5.

“We can keep this going,” the forward said. “Now we’re confident that we can win hockey games and now we have tomorrow’s game on home ice and the guys are ready for it.”

Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.