FAIRBANKS — For two and a half periods, it seemed as if the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Kenai River Brown Bears would find themselves in another close game when they met Friday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
Although the Ice Dogs swept their North American Hockey League Midwest Division rival in a three-game series in Soldotna last weekend, the contests were nail-biters.
Friday was looking like it was going to be another tight game until the third period.
The Ice Dogs held a one-goal lead deep into the third, though they ultimately exploded for three goals in the final frame on their way to a lopsided 5-1 victory over Kenai River.
“We had some opportunities early and we didn’t cash in on them,” Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart said after his club improved to 19-22-2-1 for 40 points on the season.
“It was nice for us to build on our lead in the third period,” Stewart added. “That kind of sealed the deal.”
With the win, the Ice Dogs hold a 6-3 advantage over the Brown Bears in the Ravn Alaska Cup Challenge.
The victory also marked Fairbanks’ fifth win in a row. The team has posted an 8-1-0 record since Jan. 19.
Forward Cayden Cahill sparked the third-period scoring spree when he beat Kenai River (10-31-2-0) goaltender Robbie Goor five-hole to extend the Ice Dogs’ lead to 3-1 with 6:14 remaining in the third period.
Defenseman Marc Sullivan, who netted the game-winner at 15:53 into the second period, earned an assist on Cahill’s 11th goal of the season.
“I took off into the middle and Sully saw me and we made eye contact,” Cahill said. “He gave me that beautiful pass and I was able to go in and bury it. That cushion helped a lot. It gave us more motivation to keep pushing it until the end of the game.”
After Cahill stretched the team’s lead to two, Tanner Schacle (16:38) and Grayson Gavin (17:59) both beat Goor, who made 38 saves in defeat.
Erkka Vanska and Connor Chilton registered helpers on Schacle’s 10th goal of the season, while Daniel Haider and Hampus Eriksson assisted on Gavin’s 11th of the year.
Samuel Ruffin gave the Ice Dogs a 1-0 edge with a wrist shot glove-side 15:50 into the third period. Kyle Mayhew and Ryan Kero tallied assists on the play.
Although Ruffin found the back of the net early on, Fairbanks clearly was ready to play from the start of the game.
“I think the guys are motivated, obviously they should be,” Stewart said. “Every team wants to make it to the playoffs. You’ve got to make the playoffs to try to win a championship.
“Right now, every game is a playoff game for us, so we have to make the most of our opportunities.”
Jake Friedman tied it at 1-1 when he netted Kenai River’s only goal of the game at 10:42 into the second period. Ryan Mezera and Jack Vincent each had assists on Friedman’s fourth goal of the season.
Fairbanks goaltender Josh Benson made 18 saves in the win.
Even though Cahill admitted the team is fueled by the thought of making the playoffs, he added that playing at home during Hockey Week in Fairbanks helped spark the team on Friday.
“It gives us a lot of motivation for us to show the people of Fairbanks that we appreciate them coming out to support us every night,” he said.
The Ice Dogs and Brown Bears will wrap up the series today at the Big Dipper at
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.