FAIRBANKS — It wasn’t meant to be for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
The defending North American Hockey League Robertson Cup national champions did everything they could to defend their title. Although Fairbanks encountered various roadblocks during the regular season, the team still rallied to make the playoffs and went on to advance to the Midwest Division finals.
That is where the story ends, though, as the Ice Dogs suffered a season-ending 5-2 loss to the top-seeded Janesville Jets on Saturday at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
The Jets now advance to the Robertson Cup in Duluth, Minnesota, after earning a 3-1 series win in the best-of-five Midwest Division final series. The Ice Dogs, meanwhile, begin their offseason today.
“The game was kind of similar to (Friday) night,” Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart said. “The shots went in for us last night but they didn’t tonight. It was kind of the opposite for (Janesville).”
After allowing the Ice Dogs to build a 3-0 lead in Game 3 on Friday, the Jets wasted little time before grabbing momentum at the start of Saturday’s contest.
Janesville jumped out to a 1-0 lead only 2:41 into the game when Jack Gates beat Fairbanks goaltender Erik Gordon on the Jets’ first shot on goal.
Although it wasn’t an ideal start for the Ice Dogs, they recovered and answered minutes later when Grayson Gavin put home a rebound after Janesville netminder Jacob Barczewski stopped a breakaway bid by Connor Chilton.
But unlike Friday, when Fairbanks fed off the Big Dipper crowd to score in bunches, the Jets didn’t allow the spectators to make an impact.
Janesville forward Kip Hoffmann lit the lamp to give the team a 2-1 lead only 1:03 after Gavin netted the equalizer.
“This is one of the most incredible places to play,” Jets head coach Joe Dibble said. “The fans here are some of the most enthusiastic. What they do for the Ice Dogs and the energy they give them … without (Hoffmann’s) goal, we may not have had this outcome.”
Michael Mahoney scored to extend Janesville’s lead to 3-1 at the 18:09 mark of the first period. However, the Ice Dogs again answered when Bauer Neudecker bested Barczewski (18 saves) with 34 seconds remaining in the opening frame.
Although Fairbanks cut its deficit to 3-2 before the first intermission, the Jets were dominant during the final two periods.
Peter Bates buried a power-play goal to make it a 4-2 game in the second period before Hoffmann added an empty-net goal to put an exclamation point on the win in the final seconds.
“They’re good. They’re skilled, fast and have good goaltending,” Stewart said of the Jets. “There’s not a lot of holes in their game.”
Even in defeat, Stewart said he hopes Janesville can pull together a strong performance during the Robertson Cup.
“We said at the beginning of the year, we didn’t know where we’d be but our division’s won the last three Robertson Cups,” he said. “Hopefully Janesville will have a good showing for us.”
The Jets’ players were quick to credit the Ice Dogs for giving it their all throughout the series.
“They’re a phenomenal hockey team, the whole entire organization and the fans behind them are amazing,” Hoffmann said. “But we came here to advance to the Robertson Cup and we’re happy to accomplish that.”
Fairbanks nearly tied it 3-3 on multiple occasions before Bates gave Janesville a two-goal lead in the middle of the second period.
Gavin and Nolan Schaeffer each hit the post, while a host of other Ice Dogs players had plenty of chances in front of the net.
Peppering Barczewski with shots was the game plan, but Fairbanks struggled to find the back of the net.
“They’re a good team. You have to finish your chances when you get them,” Gavin said. “We just tried to put the puck on net and hoped they’d go in.”
Although the Ice Dogs hoped to return to the Robertson Cup, the organization recognizes it can’t win it all every year.
After the game, general manager Rob Proffitt said he was happy to see the community have continued support throughout the season, even when things weren’t going the Ice Dogs’ way.
“We just want to thank the fans and sponsors that stood by us when we did go through some rough times,” he said. “We are very appreciative of everybody’s support all season.”
Even though the season just ended, Stewart said the team plans to be in the mix for the Robertson Cup again next year.
“A lot of our guys got experience and got better during the year,” he said. “We have pretty much the whole team coming back, so that’s a positive.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.