FAIRBANKS — The last thing the Fairbanks Ice Dogs want to do is back into the North American Hockey League playoffs.
Since the beginning of February, the Ice Dogs have been playing as well as any NAHL team. They entered Thursday’s series opener against Midwest Division rival Kenai River having won 16 of their last 18 games, including six in a row.
Although Fairbanks extended its win streak to seven games with a 3-2 victory over the Brown Bears on Thursday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, the team didn’t look nearly as sharp as it has down the stretch of the regular season.
Still, a win is a win. And at this point in the season, with only two regular season games remaining, the Ice Dogs were happy to beat their rival in a Ravn Alaska Cup matchup.
“We had a good first period, we were moving pretty well,” Fairbanks assistant coach Scott Deur said. “But that second period hurt us a little. We were trying to chase the puck too much and when you do that, you’re obviously going to end up in the penalty box.
“We had three or four penalties (in the second) and one of them hurt us. But overall, I thought we played pretty well with the lead in the third.”
With the win, the Ice Dogs moved into second place in the Midwest Division standings. They improved to 31-24-2-1 for 66 points.
The Minnesota Magicians, which entered Thursday in second place, holds 64 points in the standings. Kenai River fell to 12-44-2-0 for 26 points on the season.
On Thursday, Fairbanks benefited from a fast start to build a 2-0 advantage before the first intermission.
Defenseman Benton Maass started things off, as he launched a one-timer past Brown Bears goaltender Bailey Seagraves to give the Ice Dogs an early lead 8:20 into the contest.
Hampus Eriksson and Kyle Mayhew recorded assists on Maass’ score, which came on the team’s second power play of the night.
“It’s nice having him out there,” said Deur of Maass’ impact on the man-
advantage. “Hampus has been doing a really nice job of finding him in the seam and getting the puck over to him, and Benton has been doing his job pulling the trigger.”
Although Wendt extended the Ice Dogs’ lead to 2-0 with his 20th goal of the season — a snipe from the slot that rang the post and snuck by Seagraves inside the top shelf — the Brown Bears battled back in the middle frame.
After recording two shots in the opening frame, Kenai River’s offense tilted the ice throughout the second period. The visitors’ effort paid off 14:54 into the period, as Jack Vincent’s shot from the blue line squirted past Fairbanks goaltender Erik Gordon to make it a 2-1 game.
From there, the Brown Bears stuck with the Ice Dogs during the remainder of the game.
“We’ve just got to start better. We’ve got to have a better first period,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “I thought (Fairbanks) played well, they dictated the play a lot more than we did. That was obviously a factor, so we have to be able to get off to a better start.”
Minutes after he missed a penalty shot, which was awarded to the Ice Dogs because a Brown Bear covered the puck with his hand in the crease, Fairbanks forward Cayden Cahill extended the Ice Dogs lead to 3-1 at the 7:49 mark of the third period.
It was Cahill’s 18th goal of the season, and his linemates, Wendt and Robert Blueger, each tallied assists on the play.
“I came down on the penalty shot and the goalie read me pretty well,” Cahill said. “I got to the bench and I was pretty frustrated and embarrassed. But I was able to put it in the back of the net on my next shift, so that felt pretty good.”
“That line really knows how to protect the puck down low and they’ve been really hot for the last three or four weeks,” Deur said about the Cahill-Wendt-Blueger line. “It seems like they’ve been getting on the scoresheet a lot.”
Vincent lit the lamp with 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation, though, Gordon (14 saves) and the Ice Dogs ultimately hung on to earn their eighth victory over Kenai River this season.
The Ice Dogs clinched the Ravn Alaska Cup, which is awarded annually to the winner of the seasonlong series, with a 4-3 victory on Feb. 11.
Fairbanks has taken home the Cup in each of its first four seasons of existence.
Seagraves finished with 29 saves in defeat.
The two rivals will return to the Big Dipper ice for the second game of the series at 7:30 p.m. today. They will close out the regular season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Although the Ice Dogs have clinched a playoff berth, Wendt said the team is determined to finish the regular season strong in hopes of outlasting the Magicians for the second seed.
“We obviously need to bring it,” he said. “Our power play needs to get a lot better, but everyone is trying hard. We just need to make sure we bring our best the next two nights.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.