WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee Wild got a sweet but short-lived reprieve from postseason madness Tuesday evening at Town Toyota Center.
They got the final say over a Fairbanks Ice Dogs squad they’d gone back and forth with all year long with a 3-1 North American Hockey League West Division finals-clinching victory that paved their way for a trip to the Robertson Cup in Frisco, Texas. They face the Bismarck Bobcats in the first game of the round robin at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
It will be their first appearance in the four-team finals tournament since 2010.
“It’s indescribable,” forward Brian Williams said. “We worked all year for it.”
Winning the best-of-five series was no easy feat. In fact, everything leading up to this point has been a battle for the Wild.
“We haven’t had many breaks thrown our way this year,” bench boss Bliss Littler said. “I think we’ve had a target on our back, so I’m really proud of our kids. We’ve battled through a lot of adversity this year and come together.”
Wenatchee has plenty of talent skating in its first two lines, but it took a complete team effort to get the job done Tuesday.
From a defensive standpoint, the Wild’s gameplan effectively limited the Ice Dogs’ aggressive mode of attack and kept them to just 18 shots.
Their blueliners bodied up, snuffed out danger and did a good job of keeping the Ice Dogs from sustaining an attack. As an added bonus, their penalty kill kept their opponent to 0-for-5 in power play situations.
“They’re so fast,” Littler said of Fairbanks. “I thought we did a good job in our own zone in coverage, just keeping them to the outside. And when we were able to break pucks out, we didn’t give a lot of second chances.”
The Wild’s third and fourth lines turned in quality shifts, too, and Williams gave the team a critical 2-1 lead off the bench in the third period, his second score of the postseason.
Williams’ goal followed a big score from forward Jacob Barber (his seventh in the postseason), which came off a rebound from a shot by Jono Davis in the second period to make it a 1-1 affair.
“When Barber got that goal, the bench was just going nuts,” Williams said. “It was a big goal.”
Davis used his speed on a breakaway late in the third period to light the lamp one last time on an empty net to make it a sure thing. It was his fifth score in the playoffs and also a big sigh of relief for Wenatchee, which spent most of the final three minutes of regulation on the defensive.
“It feels great,” Barber said. “This group of guys, to achieve this, it’s been our goal all year to do that. Our season’s not done. We have to go down there and handle business.”
The Wild are a combined 7-1-1 against the other three squads in the Robertson Cup (Bismarck, Amarillo and Jamestown), but the window for recuperation is short.
They will head back onto the ice today for a shortened skate session, prepare a game plan and take a bus to Seattle for a Thursday morning flight.
At this point, there’s not a lot Wenatchee needs to change to be successful.
“We need to rest up, and I think we need to not change anything in our game,” Barber said. “Obviously it’s been working all year. We just need to not change.”