Ice Dogs

Ice Dogs forward Samuel Ruffin skates with the puck during the first period of Game 1 of the Midwest Division semifinals against the Minnesota Magicians on April 13 at the Big Dipper Ice Arena. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Four teams will be in action Friday in the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup National Tournament in the Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.

However, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are the tournament’s only squad that returned to last year’s event at the Fogerty. Many members of this year’s Midwest Division regular-season and playoff champions are strangers to the tournament for the top prize of the 24-team Tier II junior A league.

“We have a couple of players that were here last year and understand the situation,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said by phone Thursday, “but 80% of our guys haven’t been here before and don’t know what to expect until the puck drops (today).”

The Ice Dogs have three Robertson Cups in their history — 2011, 2014 and 2016 — and the quest for No. 4 begins against the Johnstown Tomahawks at 1:30 p.m. AKDT today in Game 1 of a best-of-three semifinal series in the Fogerty Ice Arena.  

The Tomahawks, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, are the East Division playoff champions.

Fairbanks lost its semifinal series to the eventual runner-up Minot (North Dakota) Minotauros in last year’s tournament. The Ice Dogs had 20 players who suited up for the series’ third and deciding game, a 5-4 overtime loss.

Of those 20 Ice Dogs players, only five are back in Blaine this week — defensemen John Stampohar and Noah Wilson and forwards Luke Mobley, Jack Johnston and Jax Murray.

The mostly newcomer crowd of this year’s Midwest Division representatives in the Robertson Cup tournament doesn’t seem to faze Fairbanks.

“We’re just looking at it (Friday's contest) as another game,” Stewart said. “We know that we can’t focus so much on our opponent. We’ve got to focus on ourselves like we have the rest of the year.

“For us to make little adjustments, we’ll have to face some adversity along the way, but that’s what it’s about and that’s how we’ve grown as a squad this year, and that’s how we’ll continue to grow.”

The Ice Dogs are facing a Johnstown squad that encountered adversity on the way to the East Division playoff championship and a berth in the Robertson Cup tournament.

The Ice Dogs, in comparison, came to Blaine with a 6-0-0 postseason record after sweeping  three games against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in the Midwest Division semifinal series and winning all three games against the Minnesota Magicians in the division’s championship series.

The Tomahawks’ journey to the Robertson Cup competition was seemingly more than the 938 miles between Johnstown, Pennsylvania and Blaine, Minnesota.

Johnstown needed all five games to win its East Division semifinal series against the New England Generals and championship series against the New Jersey Titans. 

“They’ve been in a couple of situations in the playoffs so far this year that we haven’t been in,” Stewart said of Johnstown. “They’ve faced some adversities in elimination games and so they’re definitely battle tested in that regard.

The Tomahawks’ 5-0 win in Game 5 against New Jersey took place Sunday in Johnstown. Sunday was an extra day of rest for the Ice Dogs, who stayed in Minnesota and took the nearly 25-mile trip to Blaine from Richfield, Minnesota, where they defeated the Magicians 6-1 in Game 3 of the Midwest championship series.

The Ice Dogs, though, were ready Monday for their first practice of this year’s Robertson Cup tournament.

“We let the guys from Minnesota, which is basically half our team, go back with their families after the Friday (Game 3) game and we took two days off the ice,” Stewart said. “We came back at it on Monday.

“The guys didn’t skip a beat, they were excited to practice. Not only Monday but (Thursday), too.

“They were excited to get on the ice with each other. I think that prepares us quite well to what we’re facing this weekend.”

Game 2 against Johnstown is set for 1:30 p.m. AKDT Saturday. If the semifinal series requires a third game, it will be played at noon AKDT Sunday. 

The Fairbanks-Johnstown winner plays for the Robertson Cup at 4 p.m. AKDT Tuesday against the winner of the semifinal series between the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings and Amarillo (Texas) Bulls. Aberdeen is the Central Division playoff champion and Amarillo is the South Division postseason champion.

Viewing parties in Fairbanks for the Ice Dogs’ games in the Robertson Cup tournament take place at the Finish Line Restaurant, 4920 Dale Road off Airport Way.

Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.