WENATCHEE — After a long drag of tight losses and tough luck, the Wentchee Wild finally had a series go their way. They capped off a two-game homestand against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs with a 2-1 win and a series sweep Saturday at Town Toyota Center.
Wenatchee (7-8-2 overall) endured a series of hard charges at the net and some very aggressive attacking early on from Fairbanks (10-7-0 overall). But, just like all season to this point, it was resilient. The difference this time though, was that its persistence paid off.
Goalie Gustaf Johansson steered the flow of the attack to eliminate second chance opportunities and compiled a handful of impressive saves early in the first period to keep his team in the mix.
“We knew the first 10 minutes that Fairbanks was going to throw everything they could at us — that’s what good veteran teams do,” coach Bliss Littler said. “And at that point, they definitely had the better of the play. Gustaf was outstanding and the last 10 minutes of the first period we started making some plays, a little confidence maybe grew.”
That confidence helped the home team secure the lead.
Wenatchee got the advantage off a two-man attack from Trey Bradley and Troy Loggins. The duo broke past the neutral zone deep into Fairbanks territory when Loggins found Bradley with a crisp pass.
The Ice Dogs applied pressure again early in the second period, but again, the Wild were up to the task and kept Fairbanks off the scoreboard.
“They came back in about the first eight minutes of the second and they really took it to us,” Littler said, “and again, Gustaf really stood tall. But after that, the last 32 minutes, I was proud of how we played.”
The Wild looked more competitive and more polished than they have all year to this point. The passing was fluid, the puck movement efficient and they were able to match the Ice Dogs’ physical style of play.
“What I liked is when they punched us in the nose time after time early on, we found it alright to get up the ice and hit them back,” Littler said. “I thought once we did that, we were able to play more our game.”
Wenatchee kept Fairbanks scoreless throughout the entire second period and most of the third period, this despite losing one of its key forwards —Loggins — to a lower leg injury midway through the contest.
Gadel Gumerov gave the Wild an insurance goal off a deflection to put the team up 2-0 with just over seven minutes left in regulation. Fairbanks scored its only goal of the contest about three minutes later after a turnover in the right circle. But Wenatchee got a power play shortly after and was able to control the flow of action as time ticked away.
The Ice Dogs made one last charge when it pulled its goalie with 1:24 left to play, but the Wild defense held strong to maintain the victory.
Make no mistake — this was an incredibly important series for the home team, which was riding a seven-game loss streak before the weekend.
Several of those defeats were by one-goal and could have easily gone the other way. But finally, after coming up short one outing after another, Wenatchee finally had one go its way.
“I do feel that the last three weeks we were getting closer to doing more things right,” Littler said. “Again, obviously Gustaf was our first star, but I think we definitely have gotten better from week to week.”
With Gustaf — a veteran North American Hockey League goalie who recorded 28 saves on 29 shots Saturday — between the pipes and the resiliency paying off, the Wild are looking more dangerous. There’s still a lot of season left to play, but the series certainly gives them something to hang their hat on.
“We grew some whiskers tonight,” Littler said. “One, playing one of the best teams in the league and playing in front of a large and very enthusiastic crowd. That combination of those two things sometimes has the makings to be a disaster, but I thought we handled it very well.”