Falcons end Nanooks’ playoff run

By Laura Stickells | March 8, 2020

A thrilling back-and-forth third period of hockey between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Bowling Green State culminated in season-ending heartbreak for the Nanooks, as they fell 3-2 in game two of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Quarterfinals at the Carlson Center on Saturday.

The fifth seeded Falcons (21-13-4) swept the best-of-three series after beating the fourth seeded Nanooks 4-2 on Friday to advance to the WCHA Semifinals.

With Alaska (16-15-5) ranked 33rd in the national PairWise Rankings, an automatic bid as a conference champion was its only shot at a berth in the 16-team NCAA postseason tournament.

Troy Van Tetering (left) and Sam Craggs (right) fight for the puck during the third period of Friday's WCHA Quarterfinals game between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Bowling Green at the Carlson Center. Photo by Laura Stickells.

“It’s a hard one to swallow tonight because of that group of guys in there,” UAF assistant coach Joe Howe said outside the locker room, referring to the nine seniors who just played their last game in blue and gold.

“They’ve worked so hard and it’s hard to realize it right now, but they’ve continued to push this program forward in what (were) some uncertain times.”

Although the group of seniors never earned a postseason win, a feat the Nanooks haven’t achieved since 2014, they still helped the program reach key milestones.

This season marked Alaska’s first .500-or-above record since the 2014-15, its 16 wins were the most since 2014-15 and this weekend was the first time Alaska hosted a playoff round since 2013-14.

Alaska also outperformed outside expectations, finishing three and four places ahead of its preseason rankings in the conference’s Coaches’ Poll and Media Poll, respectively.

“In the coming days and weeks, when the sting from this one leaves a little bit, we can start to be proud of that,” Howe said, acknowledging the team’s list of achievements, “but we knew who we had in that room too.

“We knew pretty quick this summer that we were going to get a chance to do things the right way and we knew what we had coming back, so it wasn’t so much a surprise to us or to the guys in the room. We definitely had something to prove.”

The Falcons scored first Saturday 18:55 into the game when Brandon Kruse passed the puck out from behind the goal line to Max Johnson, who whipped it gloveside past UAF goaltender Anton Martinsson from between the circles.

Neither team found the net for the next 28 minutes, an impressive feat for the Nanooks considering they played seven of those minutes on the penalty kill against a Falcons power play unit that went 2-for-3 on Friday and had a 25.9% regular season success rate.

The Nanooks’ fourth line evened the score 6:43 into the final frame.

Senior right wing Kyle Marino and freshman defenseman Roberts Kalkis each attempted shots from the left circle. Marino’s rebound connected with left wing Caleb Hite whose shot from the slot made it past Falcons goaltender Eric Dop.

The tying goal lit up the Carlson, as it felt like UAF was starting its late-game comeback Nanooks fans had become accustomed to. Alaska had come from behind to tie or win in four of its last five games, two of those being regular season contests against the Falcons.

But Bowling Green quickly sat Nanooks fans back down in their seats.

Twenty-two seconds after the goal, a roughing penalty was called on both teams and Bowling Green found the net 32 seconds into the 4-on-4 — Kruse skated with the puck around Martinsson’s net and made a short pass to defenseman Will Cullen who scored from the right side of the crease.

Just over a minute later, still on the 4-on-4, Bowling Green defenseman T.J. Lloyd’s wrist shot from the top of the circles found its way past Martinsson for a 3-1 lead.

Ten minutes remained in the game when Alaska caught a break with its first power play opportunity since the first period.

The Nanooks special teams unit, which has been hot since the beginning of February, needed only a minute to rein it back to a one-goal game. Nanooks forward Max Newton, whose first shot from the slot got caught in traffic at the net, was able to push the puck through the scrum on the rebound.

The Carlson center was back on its feet, but late penalties started to cripple the Nanooks and time to make comeback dwindled. With 4:20 remaining, Alaska was called for too many players on the ice and just over a minute later a high sticking penalty sent Tyler Cline to the box.

The Nanooks killing unit survived the 5-on-3 and just as Cline’s penalty was up, Martinsson abandoned the net.

Alaska got a series of good shots off in the final minute, but the puck didn’t bounce the Nanooks’ way. The Falcons cleared the puck as the final seconds of the season ran off the clock.

“There was belief all the way up until the final horn,” Howe said.

“For our younger guys it’s very humbling... obviously they’re disappointed too, but it’s a good thing for them to remember because it comes down to detail and little things.”