FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said earlier this week that his team was going to have a much tougher test in the North American Hockey League’s Midwest Division final series than in the division semifinal round.
Stewart’s instincts were correct because the Ice Dogs lost 4-1 to the top-seeded Janesville Jets in the first game of the division final series on Friday night in Janesville, Wisconsin.
An empty-net power-play goal by defenseman Nolan Schaeffer late in the game prevented second-seeded Fairbanks from losing for the sixth time this season by a shutout.
However, four straight goals by Janesville in a span of 56 minutes, 36 seconds helped hand the defending Robertson Cup national champions their first playoff loss of 2016-17. Fairbanks came into the Janesville Ice Arena off a sweep of the third-seeded Minnesota Magicians in three games in the best-of-five semifinal round.
The division final series also has a best-of-five format.
“We made a mistake early and we just weren’t able to catch up,” Stewart said by cellphone Friday night.
“They’re a good team and they transition well,’’ he continued. “We need to do a better job of establishing our personnel earlier in the game (today), that’s for sure.”
Game 2 is set for 4 p.m. AKDT today in the Janesville Ice Arena.
If the Ice Dogs win today, Game 3 will be played at 2 p.m. AKDT on Sunday in Janesville. If the Jets are ahead 2-0 in the series, the third game will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ice Dogs’ home rink, the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
The fourth and fifth games, if needed, also will be played at the Big Dipper.
The Midwest Division final winner joins the winners from East, Central and South division series for the Robertson Cup Tournament on May 11-14 at the Essentia Health Duluth Heritage Center in Duluth, Minnesota.
Schaeffer, in his first season with the Ice Dogs, scored for the first time in the postseason with help from Kyle Mayhew and Robert Blueger. Schaeffer’s effort at 1:58 left in the game came after goaltender Erik Gordon was pulled for an extra attacker after his 20-save night.
Stewart said he didn’t see how the goal went in but that there was traffic in front of Jets goalie Jacob Barczewski (19 saves).
“We had just pulled the goalie and the puck came out to the point,” said Stewart, “and Mayhew slid it over and he one-timed it.”
Joseph Abate’s short-handed empty-net goal, set up by Adam Roeder and Kip Hoffman, had given Janesville a 4-0 lead at 16:36 of the third period.
Abate finished Game 1 with three points off two goals and an assist. He provided the first goal of the series at 1:36 of a penalty-free first period with assists from Chris Dodero and Chase Blackmun.
Frank Sullivan put the Jets ahead 2-0 at 14:09 of the first with help from LordAnthony Grissom and Michael Maloney.
Keegan Miller and Abate set up Dodero for the only goal of the second period, at the 14:42 mark.
Janesville advanced to the division final series after sweeping the fourth-seeded Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill in the semifinal round.
Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.