Coming off a first-round sweep of the Springfield Jr. Blues and a nearly two-week break in action, the Anchorage Wolverines are finally set to host North American Hockey League playoff games. The Wolverines welcome the Minnesota Wilderness to town for a playoff series starting Friday at 7 p.m. at Ben Boeke Arena.
“It is something that we felt like we earned,” Anchorage coach Mike Aikens said about his team’s short hiatus. “We played well to sweep on the road in Springfield.”
He said that the team was battling illness in addition to the Jr. Blues during their road trip as several members of the team came down with the flu, including three who couldn’t even get out of bed.
“This time of year, nobody is 100% so I think the rest was good for us,” Aikens said. “We tried to be smart about it and take some days off and then we’ve ramped it up, and hopefully we’re ready to go when the puck drops (Friday).”
The Wolverines have been grinding on and off the ice since preseason camp in August. Aikens says that his players’ passion for and commitment to the game haven’t wavered during the season.
“Part of the key to be playing at this time of the year is to have guys wanting to play at this time of the year and still be here,” Aikens said. “I think we have that. There’s no doubt.”
The Wilderness upset the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the first round, giving Anchorage an opportunity to host the series as the higher-seeded team.
“The boys all week have been really pumped to play,” defenseman Campbell Cichosz said. “It’s really ideal that we get home ice coming into the first week and potentially three games.”
The two teams will play again Saturday at 7 p.m. at Ben Boeke. If the series is tied 1-1 or the Wolverines trail 2-0 after Saturday’s game, Anchorage will host a third game Sunday at 5 p.m.
The team kept things light during its short break and the players believe they’re much better off for it.
“We got all last week pretty much off, we skated a couple times and I think it was really good for us just to rejuvenate our bodies,” Cichosz said.
Both the Wolverines and the Wilderness had strong finishes to 2021-22 regular season and appear to be channeling that momentum into deep postseason runs.
Anchorage is a first-year organization and won 12 of its last 22 games heading into the playoffs before sweeping Springfield 3-0 in the first round.
“I think it was definitely motivating and put some confidence in us, the three games we won in a row there,” Cichosz said. “They actually swept us in the regular season at their place.”
Minnesota is a dangerous opponent, playing its best hockey since February, according to Aikens. The Wilderness are coming off a first-round series in which they clawed their way back from a 2-1 deficit to advance past the Midwest Division’s top-ranked Ice Dogs.
“I really think the Wilderness were probably the best team in our league from about February on,” Aikens said. “They are good, they’re physical, they’re structured.”
The two teams split in the regular season, each winning three games.
“It’s going to come down to a couple plays here or there, a couple bounces of the puck, who can make a save, who can capitalize on an opportunity,” Aikens said. “I think some of the little detail parts of the game are going to be magnified.”
Cichosz was one of three Anchorage players to be named to the Midwest All-Division team this week.
“It’s obviously a huge honor, and I couldn’t have done it without my teammates that played super well around me to get me that exposure and my coaching staff as well,” Cichosz said.
The other two Wolverines who received the honor were goalie and Anchorage product Raythan Robbins and forward Talon Sigurdson. Robbins was among the league’s top goalies in both save percentage and goals against. Sigurdson was tied for second in the NAHL in goals scored.
“They’ve been really good all year,” Aikens said. “Raythan has been really solid for us and dependable and gives us a chance to win every single night. Campbell has been a great leader from day one, coming in and leading us from the blue line and just doing everything right. And then Talon Sigurdson is just a tremendous goal scorer — but not only that, he is a great kid on and off the ice.”
Outside of their playoff appearance, the Wolverines received another feather in their cap during their inaugural season. Earlier this week, they were announced as the NAHL’s Organization of the Year.
“It all kind of goes hand in hand,” Aikens said. “The better the organization is, the better the team does. Then you start to get individual accolades, and I think we’re seeing that. The Organization of the Year is really a cool thing because it’s everybody.”