By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
In the land of grizzly bears and glaciers; breathtaking scenery one moment, and on the flip side of the coin, weather that sometimes takes your breath away due to frustration and fatigue the next- the state of Alaska is buzzing. The quiet, yet noticeable rumble is coming from college hockey fans that have been waiting all hockey season for their two favorite teams to finally lock horns. It's time for the Alaska Airlines Governor's Cup which is the annual face-off between Alaska and Alaska Anchorage. What's unique about this season is the fact that even though we are already skating into February this is the first time this year the two teams will see one another. After round one in Fairbanks this Friday and Saturday night, round two will take place in Anchorage in less than a month (March 1-2). The squads split their season series last year two games apiece.
"Not even with our team but with our school and the community in general. That's when we get the most support when we are playing UAA. It's definitely something else," stated Nanooks junior center Colton Leiter. "You don't want to lose; you are doing everything you can to win and there is that extra little push when it comes to a rivalry weekend. We know how important it is for us as a team but also for the entire community. The boys will be pushing a little harder that's for sure especially considering what happened last year when they got the better of us. For the guys who were there for that it's definitely burning in our stomach. I'm excited to get the weekend started. I wish it was Friday night right now."
"It's a huge deal both with the institution and within the communities," commented Erik Largen, Alaska's first-year head coach. "A lot of times it seems like Fairbanks is the little brother to Anchorage and whenever you have an opportunity to compete against them in whatever it is; whether its checkers or hockey, it doesn't matter. It's a community pride thing - it's a University pride thing. It's been a great rivalry. The Governor's Cup has been played back and forth for 20 plus years. Both programs have made their rounds whether it's Division I, Division II, club, intramural and everything like that. The schools have been playing each other for a long time so the rivalry extends deep into the community and it's a lot of fun. At the beginning of the year I know for both teams it's on their goals list to win the Governor's Cup."
And then there is what the game could mean to the Nanooks outside of the Land of the Midnight Sun. Simply put, Alaska kicked off their 2018-19 season with more bark than bite. While their early schedule was filled with top-notch opponents, Largen and his squad found themselves 0-7-2 through their first nine games. One of the main reasons for the lack of success had to do with the Nanooks' inability to bury the puck. Through that first nine game stretch Alaska was outscored 34-12 and was held to one goal or less five times (with three shutouts). But slowly signs of progress filled the ice and confidence began to creep into the locker room. It's a process, and with a new head coach to go along with just four seniors and 10 freshmen, the process is often times filled with glacier-sized hurdles along the way. The Nanooks finally got into the win column on Nov. 10 thanks to a one goal win over Lake Superior State and then went 3-8 over their next 11. Standing at 4-15-2 heading into the second game of a two game series in Bemidji on Jan. 12, Largen knew his squad was getting to where they needed to be. Leiter, along with fellow junior Tristan Thompson, could feel it too. They just needed a break. They needed a defining moment. They needed their hard work to pay off. Most of all, they needed a bounce which would show the youngsters on the roster that the season was far from over and their destiny hadn't been decided yet. Fifty-two seconds into overtime, sophomore Justin Young gave his squad the boost they were looking for. Young's first goal of the season secured the 2-1 extra session win propelling the Nanooks on a wave of success that they are still riding today. As it turned out Young's third career goal came at the perfect time. Timing is everything.
The following week the Nanooks took the ice against nationally-ranked Bowling Green and followed up the BSU win with a 4-1 victory over the Falcons. Four different players scored for Alaska in the game and two of their goals came on the power play. Up to that point they were 1-for-28 over their previous six games with the extra skater. Throw in an out-of-this-world performance by junior goalie Anton Martinsson and UAF had their second straight win. Despite falling to Bowling Green the next night and skating away with a series split the blue and gold were starting to find their identity.
Then in late January, the Nanooks kept the train moving forward by sweeping Alabama Huntsville on the road 3-1 and 5-2 respectively. Over the two games Alaska was 5-for-14 on the power play and a perfect 11-for-11 on the penalty kill. Six different players scored a goal led by Leiter who buried three in the two games. Thompson, Alaska's leading scorer through 25 games, picked up three points over the weekend and was named the WCHA Defenseman of the Week. All of a sudden, before anyone knew it (besides the Nanooks and their fans), Alaska had won four out of their last five games, were 8-16-2 overall and 8-11-1 in the WCHA. It was a far cry from the 0-7-2 record staring at them in the mirror just a few short months ago.
"Special teams picked up for us," Leiter said. "We have scored a number of power play goals the past couple weekends and our (penalty kill) has been really strong. There is really no secret recipe for it though. I have been trying to answer that question myself and trying to figure out what has changed but I can't even tell you. The compete level with the guys maybe; we were sick of losing and everyone wanted to make a difference. I think everyone has bought in a little bit more I think; maybe just having that extra little edge where we weren't doing to accept anything other than a win."
"I think at the start of the year everyone is just coming together," Thompson added. "The juniors and seniors have played together for a long time but having the freshmen coming in and getting everyone used to playing with one another, that process takes time. Then playing against some of the top teams like the ones we played against it was tough to get on the same page. Now everyone on this team are great friends and everyone is playing for one another, I think that's the biggest thing. Everyone is learning to play for each other. We have turned it around because everyone wants to win and we are all buying in at the right time which is something we need."
Largen agrees about the process but also cites the benefit of hard work. That and a really good goaltender.
"They always say behind a great coach is a great goaltender and our goalie has been phenomenal," Largen remarked. "Anton has been great; he's been fantastic down the stretch. He was great early on but he's been in a little bit of a different zone right now and he has given us a chance to win ever since Christmas break in all of the games he has played so he has done a fantastic job. Overall when it comes to our team, I like our competitiveness and I like our work away from the puck. We are working harder in support positions and things like that. We have earned a few more bounces than we did earlier in the year and I really believe that is from the work the guys have put in."
Now seventh in the WCHA standings with 26 points and eight points behind sixth-place Bemidji State heading into this weekend, Largen hopes his squad continues to find the same mixture of grit and grind that has helped play them back into the race for home ice. Coming off a bye week (Alaska was idle last weekend), the Nanooks are well-rested and healthy which is the good news. Taking a week off after winning four of their last five is the bad. While hockey players will always take a break in the midst of a grueling schedule the Nanooks admit that they would have rather had the hiatus when they were losing games as opposed to winning them. Timing.
Still, Largen and company can't wait to get back on the ice and pick up where they left off, at least that's what they hope to do. With eight games left in the regular season and a possibility for home ice in the upcoming league playoffs still a real possibility, there is no room for error.
"Its good right now, the boys are feeling pretty confident," stated Leiter. "You can never be in a bad mood when you are winning right? I think the week off was probably a good thing. You get pretty beat up with all of the travel so it was good time for everyone to rest. We had a hard week of practice. We got everyone back in shape so I think it's a good thing. We are focusing on one game at a time and trying to put ourselves in a good position for playoffs but it's in the back of the guy's minds that there is an opportunity for us to have home ice and that is something we haven't had since I have been here and haven't had for a while. We need to use that as motivation but we also need to keep our eye on what is directly in front of us; doing what we can game by game and doing what we can and continuing to progress as a team and get better every day."
"It's exciting to be playing meaningful hockey at the end of the year," Largen added. "The goal from the beginning has been more of getting better every day and focusing on what we can control and things like that. I thought we had some opportunities to win some games early on and things slipped away a little and now of late we have found ways to get points and hopefully that trend continues but at the end of the day, it's still about getting better. It's still about the day to day process with us and hopefully that translates into some more wins."
Currently 10 points out of the fifth spot and 24 available points to be had (eight games left- three points per win), the path to home ice will not be an easy one, but then again, who ever thought that the Nanooks would be 8-16-2 through 26 games after losing their first nine? Winning breeds confidence and confidence is everything.
That and timing.