Ice Dogs set for home opener

FAIRBANKS — Caleb Hite has at least two reasons to look forward to this weekend at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.

He’s skating for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who have their first home games of the North American Hockey League season at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday. The Ice Dogs are facing the Minnesota Magicians, a Midwest Division rival whom Hite skated for last season.

“I think it’s going to be awesome,” Hite said after Wednesday’s practice in the Big Dipper. “I’m expecting a loud crowd. I played here last year when I played for the Magicians, and I’m excited.”

The  5-foot-11, 185-pound forward from Grand Blanc, Michigan, contributed 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points in 55 games for Magicians last season. His totals included a goal and an assist in four games against the Ice Dogs.

Hite still knows some of the players on this season’s Magicians roster.

“I’ve been talking to them and it’s going to be exciting to play against them,’’ he said.

Hite has eight points from three goals and five assists in 10 games this season for the Ice Dogs.

This weekend, however, doesn’t mark the first encounters of this season between the second-place Ice Dogs and fourth-place Magicians. Fairbanks is 7-2-0-1 for 15 points in the Midwest standings and Minnesota is 4-3-1-1 for 10 points.

 The Ice Dogs opened the regular season with a 3-1 win over the Magicians on Sept. 20 in the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota. Coincidentally, Hite had a goal and an assist against his old team in the game at Schwan’s Super Rink.

Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart anticipates a challenge for Fairbanks in its home-opening weekend.

“They’re skilled and their goaltending is coming along nicely, and they’re getting some big stops from their goaltenders,” Stewart said. “They’re going to us provide with a very tough test for our home opener.”

The series features two goalies ranked in the top 10 in the 23-team, Tier II junior A league.

Fairbanks’ Josh Benson ranks fourth with a 1.56 goals against average and Minnesota’s George McBey is eighth in the NAHL with a 2.10 GAA.  Benson has a 5-1-0-1 record with a .942 saves percentage and one shutout, while McBey is 2-1-0-1 with a .943 saves percentage.

Veteran center Robert Blueger leads the Ice Dogs in scoring with 12 points from four goals and eight assists in 10 games. Three players — Kyler Grundy, John Keranen and Matt Denman — share the lead for the Magicians with eight points apiece.

Grundy has four goals and four assists in eight games. Kerenan has scored three times and distributed five assists in nine games, and Denman has a goal and seven helpers in the same number of contests.

Chemistry played a big role for the Ice Dogs in the Ice Dogs’ successful four-week, season-opening road trip.

“We have a nice leadership group in our opinion. A lot of guys, a lot of veterans,’’ Stewart said. “They’re looking to take the younger guys under their wings right away.

“They kind of formed some good camaraderie in the first month and a half,’’ he added.

After the games against the Magicians, the Ice Dogs return to the Dipper on Oct. 27 and 28 for their first series against the South Division’s Shreveport Mudbugs, of Shreveport, Louisiana. The opening faceoff is set for 7:30 each night.

Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.