West Finals: Ice Dogs, Wild vie for supremacy
by Brian McDonough | NAHL.com
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Wenatchee Wild both competed in last year’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament, and the two proud programs want nothing more than a return trip for another crack at a national championship.
The Ice Dogs and Wild got this month’s postseason off on the right foot, as both clubs skated to sweeps in their respective West Division semifinals series to earn a date to the finals.
Fairbanks, which captured the division’s regular-season title, cruised to its series win over Kenai River, outscoring the Brown Bears by an 18-4 margin in the process.
“We played a solid three games, top to bottom,” said Ice Dogs head coach Josh Hauge, whose team advanced to the national championship game a year ago. “I thought we got very good goaltending and a balanced scoring attack.”
Veteran keeper Joe Phillippi indeed showcased an outstanding performance between the pipes, picking up all three wins in the series to compliment a 1.33 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage.
Offensively, Alex Jensen led the Ice Dogs’ charge. The forward connected for four goals and three assists in the series to lead the team in scoring. He was also a plus-8.
“Alex had a great series and has been playing very well since we got him back from injury,” Hauge said of Jensen, who returned to the lineup in late March after missing nearly a month of action. “He has a dynamic skill set and has been playing very hard.”
But Hauge credits timely contributions from the entire team - four players put up five points apiece in the series with three others tallying four - for the Ice Dogs’ dominance over Kenai River.
“I thought we put forth a very balanced attack,” he said. “A lot of guys played very well.”
While Wenatchee also celebrated a three-game sweep in the semis - its opponent was the Alaska Avalanche - the victories didn’t come as easy. After winning Game 1, 4-1, it took an overtime goal by forward DJ Vandercook for the Wild to pin down a pivotal Game 2 victory before taking Game 3, 4-2.
“I think we played a very patient series,” said Wild head coach John Becanic. “We found consistency in our game and checked well in all three zones.”
Michael Di Puma led Wenatchee’s scoring attack in the series. The veteran forward struck for three goals and four assists.
“Mike scored big goals at critical points in the series,” said Becanic. “His leadership and will to win was infectious throughout our team.”
And goaltender Brandon Jaeger was just as effective at the other end of the ice, picking up all three wins while forging a 1.96 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
“Brandon again showed his maturity when necessary,” Becanic noted. “He was very calm throughout the series, especially in the OT of Game 2.”
Becanic also praised his entire defensive corps, as the team played Games 2 and 3 with only five blueliners.
“They continued to play smart, aggressive hockey,” said the coach.
And while Wenatchee held a 4-3 mark over the Ice Dogs in the regular season, Becanic knows his team has a big test in front of it as it vies for an invite to Topeka, host of this year’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament.
“Fairbanks is one of the elite teams in the league,” he said. “They have the deepest group of forwards who hurt you when you don't manage the puck well and I expect them to push our group’s patience. We understand the enormous challenge that lies ahead; they’re a very worthy opponent.”
Hauge also respects the experience and talent level of the Wild.
“They have a solid goaltender and they play very systematic and structured,” said the coach. “They also have a skilled group of forwards that have the ability to finish. I expect this to be a very intense series and a very competitive one.”