FAIRBANKS — That was the response the Fairbanks Ice Dogs were hoping for.
Even though the team skated to a victory over North American Hockey League Midwest Division rival Kenai River on Thursday, none of the Ice Dogs was too pleased with the way they played in the series opener.
When the rivals met Friday for the second in the three-game series, Fairbanks was motivated to generate a better performance.
That is exactly what the Ice Dogs delivered as six players found the back of the net to guide the team to a 7-3 victory over the visiting Brown Bears.
“I thought we sustained a little more pressure and had some more opportunities at their net tonight,” Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart said. “A lot of the opportunities that were created against us could have been negated by better puck management, but it is what it is. Our guys made some plays, and this is a good win.”
With the win, the Ice Dogs improved their overall record to 32-24-2-1 for 67 points on the season. They occupy second place in the Midwest Division standings, ahead of the Minnesota Magicians, who host the Aberdeen Wings today before making a trip to Janesville to face the Jets next weekend.
For Fairbanks to finish in second place — which would grant it home ice during the first round of the NAHL playoffs — it needs to beat Kenai River in tonight’s regular season finale and receive a little help. The team would need the Magicians to drop two of their final three games.
On Friday, Bauer Neudecker led the Ice Dogs offense, finishing with two goals and an assist in the win.
“It feels great to get the personal success, but even better to have the team success,” Neudecker said. “I was glad that I could contribute and help the team get the win tonight.”
Neudecker wasn’t the only one to beat Kenai River (12-45-2-0) goaltender Robbie Goor. Fairbanks tested the Anoka, Minnesota, native with 45 shots on goal, with Dean Hewines, Daniel Haider, Nick Rogers, Samuel Ruffin and Benton Maass burying goals.
Erkka Vanska tallied three assists while Ryan Kero, Luke Orysiuk, Connor Chilton and Hampus Eriksson added two helpers apiece. Haider and John Stampohar recorded an assist, as well.
“I think the effort was a lot better,” Neudecker said. “I think we bounced off of last night’s win and worked even harder tonight. We have to work hard, because we know we want to be ready for the playoffs.”
Although the Ice Dogs took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, the Brown Bears answered to trim their deficit early in the middle frame.
Ryan Mezera put the visitors on the scoreboard 4:26 into the period, as he tapped in a pass by Tyler Rock to beat Fairbanks netminder Josh Benson (25 saves) from close range.
However, the Ice Dogs quickly bounced back when Maass extended their lead to two goals 9:25 into the period. Then, 22 seconds later, Ruffin netted his 11th of the season to put Fairbanks on top 4-1.
“That was huge,” Ruffin said. “When we get a goal, we want to play lockdown defense and try to get it into our zone. You could tell (that goal) hurt them.”
“That was good to see our guys respond and put ourselves in a good position for that third period,” Stewart said.
Jack Vincent and Ethan Stewart tickled the twine in the final period, but Fairbanks exploded for three goals of its own to run away with a lopsided win.
Neudecker and Haider each lit the lamp before Hewines buried an empty-net goal with 1:24 remaining in regulation.
Despite allowing three goals, Benson was there to make saves when the Ice Dogs needed him.
His biggest stop of the night came in the third period, as he robbed Evan Butcher during a Kenai River 3-on-1 with 13:23 to play.
“He made some big saves,” Stewart said. “I didn’t think we were particularly great in front of him defensively, but he did a great job.”
The Ice Dogs will close out the regular season with one final matchup against Kenai River at 7:30 p.m. today.
Fairbanks clinched the Alaska Ravn Cup trophy — which is awarded to the winner of the in-state rivals’ seasonlong series — in February.
The Brown Bears announced they will cease operations at the end of the season, though fundraising efforts to keep the club in Soldotna continue.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.