Midwest Division Finals Preview: Janesville Jets (2) vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs (1)

Apr 25, 2018

By Mason Lyttle (@MasonLyttle) | Apr 25, 2018 | 11:40am

Along the Jets’ Road to the Robertson Cup, janesvillejets.com provides a look in at the start of each series of a hopeful run.

What fans can expect is a general introduction to the two teams, coupled with vital statistics and keys to the series. In our player-specific sections, we will highlight Players to Watch that do not serve as the usual suspects – the best of the supporting cast or perhaps the darkhorse playoff warrior.

After sweeping their oldest rivals, the Springfield Jr. Blues, in the Midwest Division Semi-Finals, the Jets face a rematch of last year’s Division Finals series. Janesville will need to get past the league’s top overall seed, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, to punch their ticket to Blaine.

The Midwest Division’s elite will again face off for the most important hockey of the year.

The Jets swept the Springfield Jr. Blues in front of fantastic goaltending from Garrett Nieto, and offensive contributions from Simon Sagissor, Ian Malcolmson, Jakov Novak, Benji Eckerle, and three goals from Sam Renlund. Awaiting them now is the toughest challenge yet.

Trevor Stewart’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs boasted ludicrous streaks this season in wins (24 straight) and points (33 straight) on their way to the top overall seed in the NAHL. The Ice Dogs’ roster shows size, skill, and experience, and features 10 NCAA Division I commitments. Fairbanks heavily controlled the shot clock in their sweep of the Minnesota Magicians, but opportunistic scoring from Minnesota kept them in each contest. The Ice Dogs will have had a full seven days’ rest at home to prepare for the incoming Jets.

Let the rematch begin.


Game 1 | Friday, April 27 | Big Dipper Ice Arena | 10:30 p.m. CDT
Game 2 | Saturday, April 28 | Big Dipper Ice Arena | 10:30 p.m. CDT

If Janesville wins ONE OR BOTH of Games 1 & 2
Game 3 | Sunday, April 29 | Big Dipper Ice Arena | 8:00 p.m. CDT
Game 4* | Friday, May 4 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CDT
Game 5* | Saturday, May 5 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CDT
*if necessary

If Fairbanks wins BOTH Games 1 & 2
Game 3 | Friday, May 4 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CDT
Game 4* | Saturday, May 5 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CDT
Game 5* | Sunday, May 6 | Janesville Ice Arena | 5:00 p.m. CDT
*if necessary

Season Series (Ice Dogs 5-0-0-1)

Fri 10/13 | Ice Dogs 2 @ Jets 3 (SO)
Sat 10/14 | Ice Dogs 5 @ Jets 3
Fri 1/26 | Ice Dogs 2 @ Jets 1 (SO)
Thur 3/15 | Jets 3 @ Ice Dogs 7
Fri 3/16 | Jets 1 @ Ice Dogs 2 (OT)
Sat 3/17 | Jets 2 @ Ice Dogs 3 (OT)

Janesville Jets vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
38-13-6-3 (85 points) Record 45-8-4-3 (97 points)
Fifth NAHL Standing First
Second Division Standing First
19-6-1-2 Home Record 19-5-3-1
16-6-5-1 Road Record 23-2-1-2
3.02 (9th) Goals For/Game 3.71(1st)
2.33 (5th) Goals Against/Game 2.08 (3rd)
21.5% (8th) Power Play 22.6% (6th)
78.5% (14th) Penalty Kill 85.6% (4th)
Eliminated in RC Semi-Finals (Lone Star) 2016-17 Playoffs Eliminated in Midwest Finals (Janesville)
3-0 win over Springfield Last Round 3-0 win over Minnesota
Jakov Novak (32-41—73) Leading Scorer Hunter Wendt (17-44—61)
Kip Hoffmann (24-36—60) Second Leading Scorer Samuel Ruffin (20-37—57)
TJ Polglaze (15-28—43) Third Leading Scorer Erkka Vanska (19-36—55)
Jakov Novak (32) Top Goal Scorer Tanner Schachle (24)
Carter Ekberg (5-25—30) Top Scoring Defenseman Luke Orysiuk (13-26—39); Kyle Mayhew (8-39—39)
Garrett Nieto (21-5-2-2, 1.94, .929, 2 SO) Top Goaltender Josh Benson (28-4-3-0, 1.91, .918, 4 SO)

Key to the Series – Janesville Jets 

Attack, Attack, Attack: Three goals wins you more hockey games than it won’t, generally speaking. But when you’re facing on offense like the Ice Dogs’ — the top in the NAHL by a considerable margin — generating your scoring chances and converting them is crucial. Fairbanks scored 223 goals in the regular season for a 3.71 per-game clip. The Philadelphia Rebels’ attack at 3.43 GF/G was the league’s next-best, and that difference between the two offenses is the largest gap between any two teams this season. Garrett Nieto has been phenomenal, and the Jets’ defense boasts a great new addition with Luke LaMaster, but often said and often right is the old adage: the best defense is a good offense.

Key to the Series – Fairbanks Ice Dogs

Sweep: It sounds like a ridiculous truism, but the Ice Dogs’ key to the series is to win hockey games. More to the point, they need to take advantage of their home ice and send this Division Finals down to Janesville with a 2-0 lead. This series’ scheduling is conditional and wonky, and gives each team a different benefit. The Ice Dogs get to open in front of their own fans, forcing the Jets to make the grueling trek up to Alaska for the second time in seven weeks. But the Jets’ schedule advantage could be even bigger. Ending the series at the Janesville Ice Arena is great for the players — sleeping in their own beds, setting their clocks to the usual routines, etc. Things might become a lot harder for the Ice Dogs if they allow Janesville a win (or even two), Jets fans will smell the opportunity cooking, and they’ll show up loud and proud at the Janesville Ice Arena.

Forward to Watch – Janesville Jets

Benji Eckerle (7-15—22): The rookie forward from Michigan has taken a gigantic step forward in the second half of his season, blossoming into a reliable two-way winger. His first 28 regular season games produced just four points as Eckerle adjusted to the skill and pace of junior hockey. He registered his first multi-point weekend on Jan. 12 & 13 vs. Springfield (two assists), and scored his first two NAHL goals the following weekend in Richfield. Those games began a 22-game stretch in which Eckerle tallied 18 points and started earning more looks in the top six and on special teams. The speedy Little Caesars alumnus has earned the trust of the Jets’ coaching staff and can be counted on to help dilute the Ice Dogs’ offense while generating some of his own alongside Jakov Novak and Sam Renlund.

Forward to Watch – Fairbanks Ice Dogs

Robert Blueger (16-36—52): A stat line like Blueger’s hardly seems like one you could call a “darkhorse” to watch, but among the high-octane Ice Dogs, the future Lake Superior State Laker ranked fourth in regular season scoring. Blueger, whose brother Teddy is a 20-goal forward for the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, was held to just one assist in the sweep of Minnesota, and will certainly be hungry to click this weekend.

Defenseman to Watch – Janesville Jets

Luke LaMaster (0-3—3): LaMaster tendered with the Jets in November, early in his senior season of high school hockey at Duluth East. He announced his commitment to Wisconsin later in November, and nearly capped a dream senior year with a championship, but his Greyhounds fell to Minnetonka in the final. He came to Janesville in March to begin his junior hockey career. LaMaster didn’t miss a beat as he smoothly transitioned from shutting down high school forwards to making plays in the NAHL. He has quickly earned a role in the Jets’ nightly lineup and quarterbacks the team’s top power play unit. His first taste of the Ice Dogs couldn’t come at a more critical time, but his coaches know Luke LaMaster is up for the challenge.

Defenseman to Watch – Fairbanks Ice Dogs

D Nolan Schaeffer (7-18—25): The 6’3″, 220lb blueliner is a 156-game NAHL veteran who contributes in every zone for Trevor Stewart’s group. Schaeffer, who committed to Robert Morris in October, used his strength and his reach to dominate the +/- column this season with a +29 mark, highest among Ice Dog defensemen. While Luke Orysiuk captains the team and led Fairbanks’ rearguards in scoring (13-26—39), Schaeffer plays a big role.

Goaltender to Watch – Janesville Jets

Garrett Nieto (31 GP, 21-5-0-2, 2.00 GAA, .929 SV%, 3 SO): Nieto was simply outstanding in the sweep of his former team, shutting out the Jr. Blues twice en route to a .973 save percentage across three wins. The Californian goalie also closed his regular season with a 23-save shutout of the Magicians. Nieto has yielded just two goals in his last 320:00 of hockey. The Jets of course have another top netminder in Daniel Lebedeff, but Nieto is as hot as they come right now.

Goaltender to Watch – Fairbanks Ice Dogs

G Josh Benson (37 GP, 28-4-0-3, 1.91 GAA, .918 SV%, 4 SO): The age-out Benson appeared in about a dozen more games than backup Logan Neaton, but finished the regular season with a save percentage 12 points higher than Neaton’s, and started each of Fairbanks’ games versus Minnesota last series. The Ice Dogs massively outshot the Magicians in the two games at the Big Dipper (45-17 Friday and 38-14 Saturday), perhaps keeping Benson a little too inactive in net. The Sacred Heart commit finished the sweep with 45 saves on 52 shots, totaling an uncharacteristic .865 save percentage. Look for Benson to get back on his game in a tighter series against the Jets.

Buckle up for a thrilling matchup.