FAIRBANKS — The Ice Dogs moved one step closer to the top of the mountain.
Fairbanks clinched the Midwest Division title after earning a 1-0 victory over the Janesville Jets in Game 5 of the division finals Saturday night at the Janesville Ice Arena in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Connor Chilton scored the game-winner, while goaltender Josh Benson pitched a shutout for the Ice Dogs.
The win secures a trip to the Robertson Cup Championship, the team’s first appearance since it beat the Wichita Falls Wildcats to capture the 2015-16 national title.
“As a staff, we’re just happy for the players to see their hard work pay off and for them to put themselves in a position where they’re playing at the end of the year,” Fairbanks head coach Trevort Stewart said. “The guys played super hard tonight. They gritted it out — it was great.”
The Ice Dogs held their 1-0 lead for the final 37:46 of action. Things got especially scary late in the third period.
Janesvile pulled its goaltender, Garrett Nieto, before an offensive zone faceoff with 2:15 remaining. During that time, the Jets never left the Ice Dogs’ zone, peppering Benson (30 saves) until the clock read 0.00.
“We were under siege for the last 2 minutes,” Stewart said. “(Benson) shut down the door on them and made a miraculous save with 1 second left.”
The goaltender robbed Janesville captain Kip Hoffmann for his final — and biggest — save of the night.
Although Stewart lauded the netminder for standing tall during the hectic waning minutes, he praised his skaters — forwards Caleb Hite, Daniel Haider and Hunter Wendt, and defensemen Luke Orysiuk and Kyle Mayhew — for battling it out, too.
“Our guys never left the ice,” the coach said. “They were out there for over 2 minutes at the end.”
The Jets’ final surge wasn’t the only time they tested Fairbanks in the final frame, though. Janesville went on a power play 8:43 into the third when Hite was sent to the box for a 2-minute roughing penalty.
Losing Hite, whom Stewart describes as one of the team’s “best penalty killers,” made the 2 minutes a frantic affair.
But the unit came through to keep the lead intact.
“That was kind of a big, big moment for us to survive that,” Stewart said. “That’s all that was — surviving it.”
The Ice Dogs’ defensive stand wouldn’t have mattered had it not been for Chilton, a veteran forward from Simi Valley, California.
Chilton scored just four goals in the regular season before netting another during the team’s 3-0 sweep of the Minnesota Magicians in the Midwest
On Saturday, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound forward was in the right place to tip a shot by defenseman John Stampohar at the 2:14 mark of the second period.
“A puck came up top to Stampohar and he got a (shot) through,” Stewart said. “It was a really nice deflection because it was about 3-feet high and Chilton just put his stick out. It was sort of like he sent an off-speed deflection into the net and the goalie couldn’t cover it.”
Stewart was happy for Chilton, a second-year player who battled injuries throughout the season.
“He’s a glue-guy,” he said. “He came back after being injured and it took him a little bit to get going. But he’s just a hockey player. He stepped up when we needed him.”
Fairbanks may have kept Janesville’s top forwards — Jakov Novak and Sam Renlund — off the board, though it wouldn’t have been possible without a complete team effort.
“It was mostly a mixture of possessing the puck and keeping them to the outside,” Stewart said of the defense. “All of our defensemen played well and didn’t give their big guys many Grade A scoring chances.”
Despite entering the postseason as the North American Hockey League’s top seed, the Ice Dogs had to work for their eighth Robertson Cup berth in team history.
Janesville took a 2-1 series lead after winning two games last weekend at the Big Dipper Ice Arena. It was an uphill climb, but Fairbanks pulled off an improbable comeback after Friday’s 4-2 win forced a winner-takes-all Game 5.
“Being the top team in the regular season and being put in a tough situation where you have to play a Game 5 in another team’s barn,” Stewart said, “that just kind of shows the character of our group.”
The Ice Dogs will be the No. 1 seed when the Robbie Cup gets underway Friday in Blaine, Minnesota.
Each division champion advances to the four-day tournament, which features three days of round-robin play before the top two teams meet May 14 in the national championship.
Fairbanks will face the Minot Minotauros, who earned the No. 4 seed after sweeping the Austin Bruins in the Central Finals, in its first game at 1:30 p.m. AKDT Friday.
As excited as the Ice Dogs were to beat the Jets, who bested Fairbanks in last year’s division finals, Stewart said the team is ready to begin its next task.
“We still have to win three more games to reach our goal,” he said. “Now it’s just about rest and recovery and getting ready for Friday night.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.