FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the Big Dipper Ice Arena on Saturday night weren’t the same Ice Dogs who lost to the Aston Rebels on Friday night.
The 5-0 score was the best indication that 2,242 fans in the Big Dipper saw a transformation of the host team that was defeated 6-4 in Friday’s series opener to the East
Division-leading and playoff bound Rebels, of Aston, Pennsylvania.
Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart noticed differences in the Ice Dogs, too.
“I just thought it was one of our best team games that we’ve played in a very long time,’’ Stewart said.
“From start to finish, I think we weathered a little bit of storm early,’’ Stewart continued. “We took care of our end; we made easy access out of our zone for the most part; and we buried the pucks that needed to be buried.”
Wing Robert Blueger buried two of those pucks and goaltender Josh Benson registered his second shutout in a week to help the Ice Dogs raise their fifth-place record in the Midwest Division to 15-22-2-1 for 33 points in the standings.
“I thought we played OK (Friday), but our team knew we could play at another level,” Blueger said. “That’s really what we did tonight.”
Tanner Schachle, Samuel Ruffin and Daniel Haider contributed goals for the defending Robertson Cup national champions, who avoided getting swept in all four meetings this season against Aston and moved within a point of the fourth-place Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill in the Midwest.
Coulee Region (16-18-2-0 for 34 points) lost 5-2 Saturday to the Minnesota Wilderness in Cloquet, Minnesota. The top four teams in each of the NAHL’s four divisions advance to the playoffs of the Tier II junior A league.
Mareks Mitens had five saves and Jack Leavy recorded eight Saturday for the Rebels (31-7-1-0 for 63 points).
Benson denied 18 shots and anchored four penalty kills Saturday for the Ice Dogs one night after he was pulled for Josh Sarlo after the first two periods.
“I just kept my confidence, kept my focus and I came into this game like another other game,’’ Benson said.
His teammates in front of him on the ice helped Benson stay confident and focused Saturday.
“They were blocking a lot of shots in every period and they were clearing pucks that were laying around,’’ Benson said. “That’s helps and it’s huge when you’re getting a shutout.”
Benson’s first shutout in his first season with the Ice Dogs occurred Jan. 20 in a 1-0 home win over the Northeast Generals. That shutout was sandwiched between 4-1 and 5-2 wins that he backstopped to help the Ice Dogs sweep the East Division team from Attleboro, Massachusetts.
On Saturday against Aston, the Rebels and Ice Dogs had six shots in the first period apiece but Schachle prevented the period from ending scoreless.
With 3.6 seconds left, he popped in a rebound from in front of the crease for the game’s first score. Cayden Cahill and Kyle Mayhew each assisted and went on to finish the game with multiple helpers — Mayhew three and Cahill two.
The Ice Dogs’ offensive juices flowed to the back of the net twice in about a 4-minute span of the second period.
Ruffin, with assists from Ryan Kero and Luke Orysiuk, scored at 49 seconds into the middle period with a blast from the faceoff dot in the right circle and his fifth goal of the season cleared Mikens’ stick-side shoulder.
At 4:12 of the second, Blueger whacked in a rebound of Ruffin’s one-timer shot from the left circle. Mayhew had the other assist on the goal, which led Mikens, who backstopped Friday’s win, to be replaced by Leary.
“We came out with a different mentality, knowing we could win,” Blueger said. “We came out harder, stronger and worked together as a team. … We did all the little things and got the win.”
Blueger’s second goal of the night, and 10th of the season, came at 10:15 of the third period with a
power-play backhand of an attempt by Hampus Eriksson in the low slot. Mayhew provided the other assist.
Haider, also with 10 goals in his first season with the Ice Dogs, lined a power-play shot from the right circle of 16:43 of the third after he was set up by Cahill and Dean Hewines.
Before Friday’s win against the Ice Dogs, the Rebels gathered 4-0 and 5-2 wins, respectively, against Fairbanks on Jan. 6 and 7 at Ice Works Skating Complex in Aston.
The Ice Dogs visit the Kenai River Brown Bears for a three-game Ravn Alaska Cup and Midwest Division series on Thursday thorugh Saturday in the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Contact sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter: @newsminersports.