OT Thriller Sees Wilderness Fall in Playoff Opener

In their history of playoff games, the Minnesota Wilderness and Fairbanks Ice Dogs have played several that could be considered classics.  Add Friday night’s game to that list.

Minnesota came within 27 seconds of victory before Fairbanks scored an extra attacker goal to tie and then a short-handed tally in overtime to win Game 1 of the best-of-five series, 3-2.  It’s the third consecutive time the two teams have gone to overtime in playoff games played in Fairbanks dating back to 2016, when the Ice Dogs needed extra time to win the first two contests in that playoff matchup, before finally winning the series 3-games-to-2 (where one additional game played in Cloquet went to double-OT—and was won by Minnesota).  

Tyler Stewart tied the game for Fairbanks when he capitalized on a centering feed from Alexander Malinowski with 27 seconds left in regulation, and that was followed by Malinowski setting up Brendan Miles for the game-winner 2:12 into overtime.  Miles’ goal finished off a 3-on-1 short-handed break, which he converted with a shot between the pads of Wilderness goaltender Matt Smith.  

The victory gives the Ice Dogs a 1-0 lead in the best-of-5 Midwest Division semifinal series.

The Wilderness controlled the play through a majority of the contest.  Several Minnesota chances in the early stages were denied by Fairbanks netminder Kayden Hargraves; meanwhile, it was Fairbanks that took the game’s first lead on a power-play goal that received what many would a call a “lucky bounce”.  Malinowski also set up this play; Jacob Conrad received a pass from the veteran forward and sent a shot that deflected off the skate of a Wilderness defender, past Smith and into the net.

Fairbanks kept that one-goal edge through the rest of the first and until the late stages of the 2nd period.  The Wilderness dominated the middle frame, outshooting the Ice Dogs 21-6, and finally broke through when Cole Crusberg-Roseen received the puck in the high slot after Jared Mangan won a face-off to the left of Hargraves.  The veteran defenseman then delivered a rocket that whipped past the Fairbanks goaltender with 1:26 left in the 2nd.

The Wilderness carried that momentum in getting a 3rd period go-ahead goal from Will Persson.  Niko Rexine and Max Neill helped set up the play where Rexine sent a pass across the front of the Fairbanks net that left Hargraves out of position, and allowed Persson to hammer the puck into a wide open cage.

Fairbanks dialed up the pressure in the latter stages of regulation, and kept its netminder off the ice for a majority of the final 2:06 of the third.  Shots in the 3rd ended up even at 7.  For the game, Minnesota had the advantage in shots on goal at 37-22.  

The playoff win for Hargraves was the first in his Jr. A career, after taking the loss in 3 games for Fairbanks in the 2021 playoffs.  Smith picked up the loss for Minnesota in the rookie’s first ever post-season start.

Minnesota and Fairbanks will meet again Friday night in Game 2 of the series.  Puck drop at the Big Dipper Arena is scheduled for 10:30 p.m. AKDT.