The puck drops on the most highly anticipated hockey game of the season tonight at 7:30 at the McDonald Center, where Chugiak will be looking to avenge its only loss to Eagle River in school history, while the Wolves will be looking to prove they're finally for real.
Chugiak's Eliot Herz chases the puck into the corner during the Mustangs' 4-1 win over Bartlett on Jan. 20 at the McDonald Center, while Tyler Painter fends off the defense. The victory was the first for Chugiak since Dec. 10, and allowed the Mustangs to keep their hopes alive for a fifth-place finish in the Cook Inlet Conference.
STAR PHOTO by Matt Tunseth
"We've got some unfinished business with them," said Chugiak captain Sean Casey, whose team fell 3-2 in a thriller on Dec. 4.
To add to the drama, there's more than just local bragging rights on the line.
A win or tie for Eagle River (5-7-1 Cook Inlet Conference, 11 points), would clinch a fifth-place finish for the Wolves and a first-round playoff game against fourth-place East, which swept the Wolves this season. Chugiak can still grab the fifth seed, but only with wins against Eagle River tonight and over second-place Service in the regular season finale on Jan. 29 at the Mac.
"It's huge," said Wolves goalie Andrew Shortridge. "We can't lose that one."
Chugiak (4-8 CIC, 8 points) recently endured a horrible scoring drought, during which the team went 40 days between victories and scored just five goals. But the Mustangs have been playing better as of late, and after dropping six consecutive games they enter tonight's clash on a two-game winning streak after wins over Bartlett and West.
Eagle River has also won two straight, but the Wolves will again be without senior captain Ben Russell, who earned his second suspension of the season for an on-ice incident at the end of the Wolves' 6-1 loss at North Pole on Jan. 20.
Eagle River got goals from Russell, Brett Wood and Dominic Thompson in the first meeting, and 17 saves from Shortridge in front of a raucous crowd.
Wolves coach Kirby Senden said the loss of his leading scorer will make the game that much more of a challenge.
"It would be a challenge with Ben or without Ben, but without Ben it's going to put some pressure on some other guys to step up," Senden said.
If Eagle River wins or Chugiak loses to Service the Wolves will play East on Feb. 1 in the opening round of the CIC playoffs. If the Mustangs win both games, they'll get East on Feb. 1. Otherwise, they'll face Service.
Eagle River 1, South 1
Eagle River notched its best-ever result against powerhouse South Anchorage with a 1-1 tie on Jan. 18 at the Mac.
"The guys played phenomenal," said Wolves coach Kirby Senden.
Sophomore goalie Andrew Shortridge had perhaps the best game of his young career, turning aside 37 shots to preserve the draw.
"I was really happy with his poise," Senden said. "He stood tall."
Shortridge had to endure a late injury suffered while making a save in overtime, and spent the final few minutes of the game alternating between holding his midsection and holding the Wolverines out of the net.
"I'm just glad I got up and was able to finish off the game," Shortridge said. "I knew I had to get up fast or the game was over."
Quinn Hulse scored just 1:01 into the first period for Eagle River, taking a pass from Dominic Thompson and beating South goalie Trevor Gutierrez with a seeing-eye slap shot from just inside the blue line. Minutes later, Gutierrez almost put Eagle River up another goal when he mishandled a puck off the boards and nearly knocked the puck into his own net.
Gutierrez eventually shook off the rust, stopping 17 shots to keep his team in the game.
Collin Olson scored a power-play goal in the second period to even the score, but that was all the Wolverines could get as Shortridge and the rest of the Wolves went all-out to keep the game deadlocked. Several Eagle River players dove in front of South slap shots in the final minutes, earning high praise from Senden.
"We've talked to them about not just being involved, but being committed," Senden said. "When you're going down on the ice and blocking shots, you're committed."
West Valley 5, E. River 1
Eagle River's Fairbanks road trip got off to a tough start with a 5-1 loss to West Valley on Jan. 20.
In losing the game, the Wolves also lost leading scorer Ben Russell after the senior earned his second game misconduct of the season and a four-game suspension for a slash on a West Valley player at the end of the game.
Russell will be eligible to return for Eagle River's first-round playoff game, although a third on-ice incident would mean an end to his high school career.
Raider Zavodsky scored the lone goal for Eagle River, which got 24 saves from Shortridge.
Lathrop 4, Eagle River 0
The Wolves dropped their second game of the road trip with a 4-0 defeat at Lathrop on Jan. 21.
Malemutes goalie Brandon Brown made 16 saves to get the shutout for Lathrop, which was outshot 25-16.
E. River 6, North Pole 1
Eagle River ended its road trip on a high note, getting two goals and an assist from Carter Jesiel and a goal and three assists from Dominic Thompson to run away with a 6-1 win at North Pole.
Dacota Wood, Hunter Gally and James Cross also scored for Eagle River, which got back to .500 on the season with the victory.
Shortridge made 32 saves to get the win.
Chugiak 4, Bartlett 1
Chugiak ended its six-game losing streak with a hard-fought 4-1 win over last-place Bartlett on Jan. 20 at the McDonald Center.
"It's nice to finally get in the win column," said Chugiak captain Sean Casey, who had a goal and three assists.
Bartlett captain Tyler King shocked the home crowd when he took advantage of a sloppy turnover to beat Chugiak freshman goalie Matt Bennett just 59 seconds into the game.
"You're kind of caught by surprise when something like that happens," said Mustangs coach Rod Wild.
But Chugiak held strong, evening things up with a power-play goal by Ben Morse midway through the period.
After a scoreless second period, the third opened with a scary moment when Bartlett's James Gephardt missed a check and slammed headfirst into the boards. A local doctor who was attending the game as a spectator immobilized Gephardt's head and neck, and the player spent approximately 20 minutes lying prone on the ice. Gephardt was taken by the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department to an Anchorage hospital for observation, but was conscious and had full use of his arms and legs as he left the ice.
Bartlett coach Jeff Barney said he expected Gephardt to be OK.
Wild said the injury had everyone on the Chugiak bench concerned for Gephardt's well being.
"The game doesn't seem nearly as important when you've got a young man lying on the ice like that," Wild said.
The lengthy delay in the game seemed to put the Golden Bears in a funk, and Chugiak capitalized with three goals in the final 10:17. Jake Wells broke the deadlock off an assist from Casey at the 10:17 mark, a goal that was followed three minutes later by Casey's. Wells capped his two-goal night with a strike with just over five minutes left off assists from Casey and Morse.
Bartlett goalie William Andarese made 45 saves in the loss; Bennett stopped five to get the win.
Chugiak 4, West 3
Senior Ben Morse scored for the second time in two games to lead Chugiak to its second straight win, a 4-3 victory over West on Jan. 22 at Ben Boeke. Kris Tomazevic, Josh Smith and Cody Sizelove added goals for the Mustangs, who improved to 8-10 overall and 4-8 in the CIC.
Junior goalie Joe Lindquist stopped 15 shots to pick up the victory.
Dimond/West 6, C/ER 3
Fairbanks 9, C/ER 0
Susan Taylor, Tilly Cantor and Hailey Foster each scored goals and Autumn Sperry notched two assists, but it wasn't enough as Dimond/West handed Chugiak/Eagle River a 6-3 loss on Jan. 22 at Ben Boeke.
Sierra Carr made 45 saves in the loss for Chugiak/Eagle River, which fell to 3-14-1.
Chugiak/Eagle River also dropped a 9-0 contest with Fairbanks on Jan. 20 at the Mac.