FAIRBANKS — This week’s last home practices of the regular season for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs were seemingly different compared with the other sessions in 2018-19 at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
The Ice Dogs are wrapping up the North American Hockey League regular season with a homestand against intrastate and Midwest Division series rival Kenai River Brown Bears at 7 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Dipper.
“Just the length of practice. It’s more about maintenance as opposed to conditioning right now. Making sure that we’re fresh going into a long, three-game weekend,” said Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart after Tuesday’s practice.
The Ice Dogs will be trying to make sure they’re division regular-season champions when the series against the Brown Bears concludes Saturday.
The Ice Dogs lead the Midwest Division at 35-16-3-3 for 76 points in the standings, securing a berth in the playoffs. Fairbanks can clinch the division’s regular-season title if it earns three points in the standings during the series against Kenai River.
In the NAHL, a 24-team Tier II junior A league, a team gains two points in the standings with a regulation, overtime or shootout win, and one point if it loses in overtime or a shootout.
The Ice Dogs have won seven of nine games this season against the Brown Bears. However, the losses are just as memorable as the wins.
One of those defeats was a 4-2 outcome last Friday in the second game of a three-game series at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The Ice Dogs had seized a 2-0 lead early in the first period on the complex’s Olympic-size ice (200 by 100 feet).
“I think that was good for us,” Ice Dogs defenseman Noah Wilson said Tuesday. “It’s a league where you can win or lose every game. There’s no team that’s going to take it easy on you. It’s going to be a hard game every night.
“Obviously, you want to win every game, but it was nice for us to kind of get that wake-up call and realize if we don’t work hard every single night we’re not going to get the outcome that we want.”
The Ice Dogs won 5-2 over the Brown Bears in series opener March 21 in Soldotna and recovered the two-goal setback in the middle game with a 5-1 victory Saturday.
The Ice Dogs and the fifth-place Brown Bears (22-29-3-3 for 50 points) know each other well. The familiarity makes Fairbanks hungry for success in the intrastate feud.
“Their goalie (Gavin Enright) is playing really well right now,” Stewart said, “so we’ve got to find some different ways just to generate different looks at him.
“We obviously have home ice going into this weekend, so there’s maybe some different things we can do with personnel.”
Stewart stressed that the Ice Dogs need to play their brand of hockey during the next three nights on their home ice.
Depth and transition are key elements of Fairbanks’ brand.
“We’re deep, we rely on getting pucks quickly out of our zone in transition and trying to forecheck and kind of pin teams in,” Stewart said.
“We’re a team that we feel can generate a lot of shot volume. At the end of the day, we have to be disciplined and capitalize on our opportunities.”
The Kenai River series also is the Ice Dogs’ Parents Weekend and inaugural Alumni Weekend.
Today’s game is sponsored by Lameta Pumping and Thawing. A Lameta gift certificate will be given away during an intermission and during the other intermission, an auction of game-worn home jerseys for the Ice Dogs will be conducted.
Friday’s game is sponsored by Sani-Can, and the new Weekender portable restroom will be on display.
Ice Dogs players’ parents and billet families will be honored on the ice during the first intermission.
The second intermission will feature another auction of game-worn home jerseys.
Saturday’s game is sponsored by Renewable Energy Systems and Arctic Home Living.
RES will give away a $500 gift certificate.
Ice Dogs alumni will be honored on the ice during the first intermission. The game-worn home jerseys will be auctioned during the second intermission.
The 22nd annual Ice Dogs Spaghetti Feed and Auction takes place at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Centennial Center for the Arts at Pioneer Park.
Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.