BLAINE, Minnesota – After losing Game 2 on Saturday, Fairbanks Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart was confident.
“We’ve never done things the easy way,” he said. “There’s the right way and the wrong way, and then we call it the Ice Dogs way.”
The top-seeded Ice Dogs didn’t make things easy on themselves Sunday, when they met the fourth-seeded Minot Minotauros in the third game of the best-of-three North American Hockey League Robertson Cup Championship semifinals in the Fogerty Arena.
It was a game for the ages, as the teams traded goals throughout before needing overtime to decide a winner. In the end, Minot skated to a 5-4 victory after Ondrej Pavel beat Fairbanks goalie Josh Benson with 12:20 remaining in the extra frame.
“We had all the pressure in overtime and didn’t capitalize,” Stewart said after Sunday’s loss. “They just made a play.”
Pavel’s goal came after he forced a turnover in the neutral zone. He took the puck away from Fairbanks forward Erkka Vanska and headed toward the Fairbanks net with a head full of steam. Vanska did his best to catch up to Pavel, but the Minotauros forward created enough separation to rifle a wrist shot into the top corner of the net.
“I saw Erkka Vanska going up the ice and I wanted to push him to the boards,” Pavel said of the play. “I managed to poke-check his stick, and I was able to get the puck. I had a little of a blackout, I don’t even know where I shot it. It was just an amazing feeling to score.”
The loss marks the end of the Ice Dogs’ season. The Minotauros, the Central Division champions from Minot, North Dakota, will play in a one-game national championship against the second-seeded Shreveport Mudbugs at 4 p.m. AKDT today.
Shreveport, the South Division champion, clinched a spot in the title game after Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the third-seeded Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights for a sweep of the semifinal series against the East Division champions from Pittston, Pennsylvania. The Mudbugs, of Bossier City, Louisiana, won, 2-0, on Friday.
Although Fairbanks fell on the wrong end early in Sunday’s series finale against Minot, the Ice Dogs overcame adversity to take control of the game.
After Michael Talbot gave Minot a 1-0 lead 12:34 into the contest, Fairbanks rallied to build a 3-1 edge after three goals in the second period. Caleb Hite scored two, with a Luke Mobley rebound goal sandwiched in the middle.
“He’s been the best player on our team all playoffs. It’s not even a question,” Stewart said of Hite. “He does things the right way, works hard and got rewarded for his efforts.”
The Ice Dogs have seen leads disappear throughout the playoffs, and Sunday’s showdown was no different. After Miroslav Mucha cut the Minotauros’ deficit to one at 13:07 into the final period, Talbot evened the score at 3 with just 5:35 remaining.
That’s when the fun started.
Fairbanks regained control when Nolan Schaeffer put home a low shot from the blue line, giving the Ice Dogs a 4-3 edge with 2:18
to play. But Minot didn’t go quietly, as one of its defensemen, Nolan Sawchuk, scored a goal similar to Schaeffer’s only 30 seconds after Fairbanks went on
“That was just a wild period of hockey,” Minotauros head coach Marty Murray said of the final frame. “I’ve been in the game for a long time as a player and a coach, and that was one of the wildest third periods I’ve seen.”
Sawchuck’s late goal forced overtime, and that’s where Pavel beat Benson to secure a Minot victory.
“To be a championship team, when you have a lead with 2 minutes left, you need to find a way to make a play to secure that lead,” Stewart said.
Fairbanks continued to pressure Minot goaltender Samu Lonkila at the start of the extra frame. But the Finnish netminder repeatedly answered the bell, finishing with 32 saves in the win.
“It was a hard game,” Lonkila said. “(Fairbanks) is so great. It wasn’t easy, but we battled.”
Benson finished with 17 stops in defeat.
Although Sunday’s loss felt like a gut punch, Stewart said he was proud of the Ice Dogs for winning the Midwest Division title.
“It was a good year, but this is obviously disappointing,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for our 20-year-olds, and those other guys who are moving on to college and won’t be playing junior next year. This is just disappointing, because it felt like we just gave the game away instead of letting a team beat us.”
The Ice Dogs won 5-2 in Game 1 Friday and lost 2-0 in Game 2 Saturday.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.