FAIRBANKS, Alaska — At this stage in the season, there are no surprises waiting for the Wenatchee Wild when they travel to face the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. At least, not from a strategical standpoint.
Wenatchee, which is tied 1-1 with the Ice Dogs in the North American Hockey League West Division finals, faced its west rival 12 times during the regular season. The Wild are locked in for a pair of showdowns this weekend in Fairbanks as the best-of-five series continues.
The Wild are 6-6-2 against Fairbanks (including the postseason), and every outing has been a battle. Both playoff games were decided by one goal, and three of the regular-season match-ups were decided in overtime or a shootout.
Both teams bring a fast pace of play to the rink and do a good job of getting up and down the ice.
The key for Wenatchee defensively lies in dealing with rushes and rebounds.
“Their M.O. is on their line rushes to bring the puck in wide, put it off the goaltender and hunt for a rebound,” coach Bliss Littler said last Friday, “and they do a good job of that.”
The Wild did a good job of dealing with the pressure in the first game, and they recorded a shutout.
It also didn’t hurt that netminder Robert Nichols turned in another masterpiece in the shutout — he entered the series with a .930 save percentage and a 1.72 goals against average in the playoffs and is playing some of his best hockey in months.
But a handful of defensive mishaps left Nichols vulnerable in a few key situations in the second game; Wenatchee was down a 3-1 going into the third period. It outscored the Ice Dogs in the final period, but couldn’t make up enough ground and fell 4-3 .
Both squads have each other figured out by this point, but it’s anyone’s guess how the series will wrap up.
With little separating the Wild from their counterpart, at least on paper, intangibles could be a key factor.
“Basically what you’re playing for is another day with your teammates,” defenseman David Mead said after sinking the game-winning shot in the series opener last Friday. “Playoff hockey is the hardest time of the year, but it’s the most fun time of the year.”
Both sides have ample weapons to get the job done. Forward Jacob Barber carried Wenatchee past Fresno in the opening round of the NAHL West playoffs by notching five goals in two games to close out the series. Jono Davis led the team in scoring during the regular season with 32 goals and Max McHugh has been a pillar of stability with his play at center.
But Fairbanks has a multitude of weapons, too, with forwards Lawrence Cornellier and Garret Clemment tied with seven points in the postseason.
There’s plenty of familiarity, sure. But perhaps the biggest certainty going forward is that a Robertson Cup berth won’t come easy for either side.
“No one’s going to quit in this series,” Littler said.