The West Division proved to be one of the NAHL’s most competitive in the regular season, and the playoffs are expected to generate the same level of excitement.
In semifinals, the regular-season champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs will match up against the Kenai River Brown Bears, while the No. 2-seeded Wenatchee Wild will tangle with the Alaska Avalanche.
Fairbanks Ice Dogs vs. Kenai River Brown Bears
As the division champions, the Ice Dogs are the decisive favorites over the Brown Bears, but Fairbanks head coach Josh Hauge knows full well his team still needs to bring its best effort against one of the surprises of the NAHL this season.
“We need to play with a lot of speed and our special teams have to be on,” said Hauge, whose team led the NAHL with 245 goals scored in the regular season. “We also need to get strong goaltending.”
“We need to believe we can win,” said Brown Bears head coach Oliver David, whose team finished dead last in the NAHL in 2009-10. “We’ve had 58 games to develop and winning is the sole purpose of every game from here on out, and we need to be better than an elite Fairbanks team for that to happen.”
The Ice Dogs, which made it all the way to the Robertson Cup championship games a season ago, held an 8-4 edge over the Brown Bears in the regular season. Most recently, Fairbanks skated to a two game-sweep over Kenai River on March 18-19, outscoring the Bears the 9-1.
But the Ice Dogs don’t plan on taking the Brown Bears lightly, not with a lethal No. 1 line in Doug Beck, Brett Lubanski and Brad Duwe, along with two formidable goaltenders in Mathias Dahlstrom and Josh Benton.
Forward Jared Linnell, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks recruit, led the Ice Dogs’ potent offensive charge in the regular season putting up 34 goals for 65 points in 58 games. At the other end of the ice, goaltenders Joe Phillippi and Steve Perry have shows flashes of brilliance.
“Fairbanks is a very capable team,” said David. “They have solid goaltending, Robertson Cup experience and very talented players. They’re built well.”
Home-ice advantage will also weigh heavily in the Ice Dogs’ favor as the team again averaged well over 2,000 fans a game in attendance this season.
“We have a great atmosphere and expect the Big Dipper to be very loud,” said Hauge.
Game 1 of the series is set for Friday in Fairbanks.
“We’re ready to play,” said David. “It’s been our goal as a team to be playing postseason hockey, and I’m confident in my guys that they’ll compete - that’s where it all starts.”
Wenatchee Wild vs. Alaska Avalanche
Only three points separated the Wild and Avalanche in the regular-season standings this year, and both teams are more than familiar with the other’s strengths.
“Alaska is very dangerous on the attack and can score quickly and in bunches,” said Wild head coach John Becanic. “We’re fully aware of their speed from both the forwards and the back end, and we’ll have to play a patient game with them.”
“Wenatchee is a very disciplined and patient team,” added Avalanche head coach Brian Huebel. “They have some talented players who’ve shown the ability to produce and we expect their A-games in the playoffs.”
During the regular season, Alaska fashioned an impressive 6-0-2 record of the Wild. In the team’s most recent meeting earlier this month, the Avs skated to two-game sweep over Wenatchee.
“We have good team speed and play a gritty style of game, and we need to stick to that identity in the postseason,” Huebel said. “We know who we are and how we have to play, and must have 100-percent commitment in competing that way.”
“I think we’ll have to outwork their goalies in order for us to have a chance at beating them,” countered Becanic. “Playing in the moment and staying focused on what's important next and not being distracted by peripheral opponents is always a key.”
Despite the Wild being the No. 2 seed, the first two games of series will be played in Wenatchee with the third scheduled for either Wenatchee or Alaska depending on where they series stands after two games. Games 4 and 5, if necessary, are slated for Alaska.
“There really isn't any home ice for us; it’s actually in their favor,” said Becanic. “That being said, we know the fans in Wenatchee will energize our legs after a two-week break. We also know we’ve played good hockey up in Palmer (Alaska), so we embrace the opportunity to win in their building.”
The series gets underway on Friday.
“We’ve had our share of learning experiences throughout the season, and we need to make sure we remember those experiences on what works and what doesn't work and bring a high level of compete and execution into this series,” said Huebel. “We’re going to embrace the opportunity we have.”