For a team armed with a lot of talent but plagued by inconsistency for much of last season, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are hoping this year’s team has the character and fortitude to make another run at a national title.
And if last week’s North American Hockey League (NAHL) Showcase Tournament is any indication - Fairbanks went a West Division-best 3-0-1 at the event - the Ice Dogs are barking up the right tree.
“It’s very early, but we were happy with our start at the Showcase,” said Ice Dogs head coach Josh Hauge, who guided the organization to a berth to the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament last season. “We have a lot of areas to improve on, but we like the group of young men we have.”
One who came to the forefront at the Showcase was forward JT Osborn. The Alpine, Calif., native unleashed for five goals and an assist at the event and was also a plus-4.
No stranger to the NAHL, Osborn, 19, totaled 21 goals for 39 points in 56 games with the Wichita Falls Wildcats a season ago.
“JT has an uncanny ability to put the puck in the back of the net,” praised Hauge. “He’s a pure goal-scorer and can change the game anytime he’s on the ice.”
Another NAHL vet, forward Zach Vierling, also had a strong Showcase. The 20-year-old from Coon Rapids, Minn., who dressed last season for the Owatonna Express put up five points (one goal) at the four-game festival.
“He was a consistent worker all weekend and was strong defensively,” said Hauge. “It was also nice to see him chipping in on the scoresheet.”
The Ice Dogs also leaned on the leadership and stability of forwards Matt Millis and Tyler Voigt, while defenseman Sean O'Rourke and Brock Carlston, both of whom finished a plus-6 at the Showcase, paced the blue line core.
“We just need to continue to get better and see what needs to improve,” Hauge said of the season’s big picture.
And they’ll have a good measuring stick of where they stand over the next couple of weeks. The Ice Dogs head to Texas this weekend to play the Showcase champion Wildcats and a pair of games against the Texas Tornado. The following week, they head to Wenatchee to play three games against the West Division rival Wild.
“We expect these next six games to be very telling for us,” said Hauge.
ALASKA AVALANCHE: With a 1-3 record at the Showcase, head coach Brian Huebel wants to see more consistency out of his charges. “I thought, at times, we played hard and competed well and saw our potential, but we need to understand that needs to be done for a full 60 minutes,” he said.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: The first-year Rage came into the Showcase with blindfolds on, but didn’t disappoint with a 1-2-1 record. “Being an expansion team with no idea of what to expect, we felt it was an outstanding experience for our team,” said head coach Scott Robinson, who lauded the play of goaltenders Andrew Walsh and Edward Dyson for their performances.
FRESNO MONSTERS: After their 2-1-1 mark at the Showcase, the Monsters have few complaints. “Our team showed great poise,” said head coach Eric Ballard. “We were happy with our performance.” Forwards John Siemer, Johan Bjorklund and Mike Cox played well upfront, and blueliners Jordan Johnson and Walker Hyland were exceptional defensively.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Forward Brett Lubanski left his mark at the Showcase, potting a goal and four assists as the Brown Bears went 2-2. He was also a plus-4. "Brett has been terrific,” said head coach Oliver David. “Whether we win or not, he’s consistent both offensively and defensively. He really is one of the premier two-way centers in our league.”
WENATCHEE WILD: Expectations are high again in Wenatchee, and the Wild, which finished the Showcase at 3-1, once again likes the mix of players it’s brought together. “They’re a close-knit group,” said head coach Paul Baxter. “Overall, I like their competitive spirit and talent level; it’s a fun team to work with.”