WENATCHEE — Robert Nichols’ stick dropped to the ice just after making a game-winning stop in 4-3 shootout win over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday at Town Toyota Center.
Teammates embraced the net minder seconds later and fans hurled broomsticks onto the ice to celebrate the three-game series sweep.
The veteran goalie played the last Fairbanks attacker aggressively, skating out of the circle to meet the challenge head on — it paid off. Nichols recorded his second shootout win in the net in as many weeks and helped his team execute a three-game sweep over Fairbanks (29-13-2 overall) to wrap up a weekend that asserted Wenatchee’s dominance in the NAHL West division.
Center Max McHugh hit the game-winning shot during the first shootout attempt and Nichols kept the Ice Dogs out of the net the entire shootout.
“What more can you say? He was out all over everything,” assistant coach Tom Rudrud said. “I don’t know if they really had a sniff of anything the way he was squared up on the puck.”
The strong shootout showing was an appropriate climax to a scrappy — but extremely rewarding — weekend. Fairbanks didn’t give the Wild (30-7-4 overall) anything; rather, they earned everything. They played from behind, ahead, and tied, but didn’t lose their composure once throughout the series.
Wenatchee survived a three-on-four situation in overtime after a penalty, thanks to some all-out defense and a number of timely saves by Nichols, who recorded seven saves in overtime alone, to force a shootout.
It rallied after giving up a goal within the first two minutes of play in the first period.
It even overcame its own mistakes, which included a costly turnover that led to a Fairbanks score to make it 2-1 in the second period.
The Ice Dogs, who entered the series 8-2 in the month of January played aggressive, opportunistic hockey, the Wild just did it better.
“I was very proud of our guys all weekend,” said Rudrud, adding that Fairbanks pushed his squad from start to finish in all three contests. “I thought that anybody who stepped onto the ice stepped up.”
In pulling off the sweep, Wenatchee also handed the Ice Dogs their longest losing streak of the season — they came into Wenatchee riding a three-game win streak — and recorded its first three-game regular season sweep over Fairbanks in franchise history.
As an added bonus, the Wild were able to create some separation in the division. They led the West by one point before the series, but picked up six more with the victories and kept Fairbanks to just one, which gives them a five-point cushion. Of course, there’s plenty of hockey left to play before the playoffs.
“We are able to breath right now, but there’s way too much season that we need to be concerned about to put too much emphasis on this weekend” Rudrud said.
At the same time, this was a big weekend for Wenatchee. The team is 5-1 in its last six outings and appears to be in the midst of a hot streak. The Wild stuck around on the ice to perform the “Sweep Dance” afterward. The ritual — a circle of players in skates dancing badly with music blaring over the PA — entertained fans and displayed how significant the string of wins are.
It wasn’t given to them; they earned it.
Wenatchee 4, Fairbanks 1 (Friday)
The Wenatchee Wild got another night of picturesque execution and handled the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 4-2 Friday at Town Toyota Center. Again, the Wild got what they expected from the Ice Dogs, an aggressive team that creates opportunities. But for the second night in a row, Wenatchee did a better job of executing and converted 33 shots into four goals, one which came on an empty net late in the third period.
“We just did a better job of finishing,” coach Rudrud said.
Defender Joshua Hartley scored the team’s first goal early in the second period, Joe Sullivan scored again to make it a 2-1 contest going into the third period and Jacob Barber knocked in a score while shorthanded.
Rudrud saw the shorthanded score as a big turning point for his team.
“It was a game where both teams had opportunities, both teams played pretty well, and I think our shorthanded goal was what really took the wind out of their sails,” he said.
Jon Frank: 664-7157