After cruising into the playoffs as winners of 22 of their last 25 games, the Ice Dogs took care of business when they skated to a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Magicians in the first game of the best-of-five Midwest Division semifinals.
It wasn’t easy for No. 2 Fairbanks, as the third-seeded Magicians controlled play for much of the contest. However, the Ice Dogs ultimately escaped with a win after captain Ryan Kero and defenseman Aaron McPheters netted short-handed goals 28 seconds from each other in the beginning of the second period.
“We’re excited to start off the series with a win obviously, but there was a large majority of the game that we were back on our heels,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said in a phone interview. “We were pretty much toward our own net instead of moving forward. Our transition game got disjointed and they definitely took it to us for the majority of the game.”
Davis Kirkendall finished off a pass from Jarrett Lee and beat Fairbanks goaltender Erik Gordon to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead 11:24 into the contest.
After that, though, Gordon, a Duluth, Georgia, native, was spectacular for the defending NAHL Robertson Cup national champions. He finished with 28 saves in the win.
Although the Ice Dogs faced adversity in the first period, they answered early in the middle frame.
With Marc Sullivan serving a two-minute cross checking penalty, Kero buried the equalizer when he bested Minnesota netminder Ivan Prosvetov 3:36 into the second period.
Samuel Ruffin tallied an assist on Kero’s score, which came moments before McPheters gave the Ice Dogs a 2-1 edge with an unassisted goal.
“We had offense in a little bit of stretches,” Stewart said. “During the second period, we carried the play for about half of the period. But overall, our play wasn’t very consistent.
“It wasn’t consistent with what we were trying to do.”
Despite holding an 8-5 advantage in shots on goal during the first period, the Ice Dogs were outshot by Minnesota, 24-12, in the final two frames.
The third period was especially daunting for Gordon, as he had to make 14 saves in the last 20 minutes of action.
Fairbanks will look to take a 2-0 lead in the series tonight. If the Ice Dogs are able to earn their 11th consecutive victory, they’ll return to Fairbanks with a commanding lead in the series.
“It’s a huge game,” Stewart said.
Game 3 is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start April 21 at the Big Dipper Ice Arena. If necessary, Games 4 and 5 will take place at 7:30 p.m. April 22 and 23.
Even if the Ice Dogs weren’t at their best Friday, Stewart said he believed his young squad will be prepared for another battle.
“I think we got a little of the playoff experience out of the way,” he said. “Hopefully be more ready tomorrow.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @bradjoyal.