FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks Ice Dogs earned a celebration.
Halfway through the regular season, the Ice Dogs recognized they were going to need to conquer an uphill battle in order to qualify for the North American Hockey League playoffs.
The defending Robertson Cup national champions struggled at the start of the season, digging themselves into a hole that left them at the bottom of the Midwest Division standings for much of the 2016 portion of the 2016-2017 regular season slate.
However, the Ice Dogs ultimately answered the call and will be rewarded with a trip back to the postseason.
Fairbanks will cruise into the playoffs as winners of nine straight, as they capped off the regular season with a 5-1 victory over Midwest Division rival Kenai River on Saturday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
“We just tried to control what we could and we’ve done our part,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said. “Whoever we play next, so be it. But two weeks from now, we’re going to be playing playoff hockey and we’re excited about that.”
With this weekend’s sweep over the Brown Bears, Fairbanks finished the regular season with a 33-24-2-1 overall record for 69 points in the standings. The team currently sits in second place in the Midwest Division, and it will enter the playoffs as the second seed if the Minnesota Magicians lose one of their final two regular season games at Janesville next weekend.
If the Magicians win one of their games against the Jets, they will finish with 69 points, too. But if it comes down to a tiebreaker, the Ice Dogs would win out and have home ice during the best-of-five opening round of the NAHL playoffs in two weeks.
Kenai River, meanwhile, finished its season with a 12-46-2-0 mark. Although the Brown Bears announced they would be ceasing operations at the end of the season, fundraising efforts have been taking place to help the team continue to call Soldotna home.
“Right now emotions are pretty high because we’ve been dealing with this for the past two months,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “All we can do now is wait and see.”
Hampus Eriksson, Grayson Gavin, Cayden Cahill, Tanner Schacle and Ryan Kero each found the back of the net for the Ice Dogs on Saturday.
Luke Orysiuk recorded two assists, while Kero, Eriksson, Robert Blueger, Erkka Vanska, Kyle Mayhew, Samuel Ruffin and Benton Maass each tallied a helper in the win.
Ethan Stewart netted Kenai River’s lone goal, as he finished off assists from Christopher Lipe and Luke Radetic to beat Ice Dogs goaltender Erik Gordon (20 saves) in the second period.
Kenai River netminder Robbie Goor made 32 stops in defeat.
“Things are going our way right now,” said Kero, the team’s captain. “We’ve just been focusing on each game and trying to win one after another.”
Although Kero was careful to not look too far ahead, he recognized that neither he nor his teammates are intimidated by any NAHL team they could meet during the playoffs.
“It’s a special group,” he said. “When we’re on the ice with anybody, we know that we can win.”
The Ice Dogs not only won their last nine games, they also finished the year with a 22-3 record dating back to Jan. 19.
“We’ve had a good record in the last 25 games, I’m sure the other teams have been looking at that,” Gavin said. “It definitely gives us a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs.”
Stewart echoed his players, adding that he believes his team could be poised for another deep postseason run.
“Every other time we’ve been in the playoffs, at least since I’ve been here, we have a really good chance to come out of our division,” he said. “I don’t think there is a team that wants to play us, that’s for sure, considering how things have been going lately.”
Throughout the weekend, the Ice Dogs held different fundraising efforts to support Kenai River’s quest to remain in Alaska.
The organization collected donations at a special table set up inside the Big Dipper during the three-game series, and Fairbanks general manager Rob Proffitt even got into the act Saturday.
During the second intermission, Proffitt took the ice and revealed that he was wearing a game-used jersey of former Brown Bear, Sviataslau Kuchynski.
The surprise came while the Ice Dogs were auctioning off their own players’ jerseys, and the crowd went into a frenzy when Proffitt declared the $2,100 Kuchynski’s jersey sold for would be donated to Kenai River.
Although a total figure for how much money was raised during the weekend was not available, it was clear the Ice Dogs made a strong impression on the Brown Bears, who have also received help from a group of supporters led by Sterling resident Steve Stuber.
“Rob has been here forever and he’s done a great job,” Worlton said. “What he did tonight speaks volumes about him and his love for hockey and Alaskan hockey. The Fairbanks fans also surprised me a little bit with how excited they were to support us and how willing they were to do it.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.