WENATCHEE — They’re still clinging to a slim division lead, but the Wenatchee Wild carved some breathing room Thursday with a 2-1 win over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Town Toyota Center.
Coming into the three-game series, which resumes today and wraps up Saturday, Wenatchee (29-7-4 overall) looked as though it was in jeopardy of dropping its NAHL West lead, which shrunk to one point after the Ice Dogs (29-12-1 overall) completed a three-game sweep over Fresno. Instead, it got two points worth of padding thanks to a dominant outing.
Whether or not Thursday’s victory was a statement win is beside the point. The Wild instituted aggressive, but smart, offense, hounded after loose pucks and displayed brilliant puck control, which helped put a lid on Fairbanks’ offense. The defense kept the Ice Dogs scoreless for 47 minutes.
“(We) didn’t turn many pucks over at all, and I think that’s a direct correlation,” defender Blake Butzow said. “They didn’t have many opportunities because of that.”
While the Ice Dogs struggled to generate offense, the Wild fervently attacked the net and finished the night with 44 shots on goal. It didn’t matter that most of them weren’t going in; they were good looks set up with crisp passing and good positioning. Good things tend to happen when you’re creating opportunities.
Wenatchee took a 1-0 lead with less than four minutes left in the second period with a score from Jono Davis (his 24th of the season) after a pass from center Max McHugh.
The Wild followed that with a third-period goal from Trace Redmond, who praised his team’s effort after the victory.
“It was all just hard work,” said Redmond, who recorded his sixth goal of the year. “When you play a team like this, it comes down to who wants it more.”
Not surprisingly, Fairbanks wouldn’t go quietly.
It scored its lone goal on a deep shot by a defender after a series of deflections by Wenatchee goalie Robert Nichols midway through the third period to make it a 2-1 contest and produced a few more scoring opportunities, but couldn’t get past Nichols’ guard, who finished the night with 21 saves.
“We were very tenacious,” said assistant coach Tom Rudrud, who coached the team in the absence of Bliss Littler and Chris Clark after both were ejected from Saturday’s game against Kenai River. “We were very aggressive and physical, and I don’t think there were too many times they (Fairbanks) were winning battles. … But Fairbanks did a great job of making some good plays and putting pressure on us down the stretch.”
There are still two games left in the series, but just about everything worked well for the Wild in game one.
Butzow said he feels like his team turned a corner last weekend in its series against the Kenai River Brown Bears — Wenatchee won two of three, one in overtime and another in a shootout — and said his team needs another performance like Thursday’s to pick up another win.
Redmond agreed that things went well in game one and said his squad played up to its expecations.
“If we play how we can play, we know we’re going to come out on top most nights,” he said.
If the Wild can muster another high-caliber performance today, they will be a tough team to beat.