In the recent history of the Governor’s Cup, there may be no more greatly anticipated series than the one taking place this weekend in Anchorage between the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While both hockey programs have gone through struggles at points over the past decade, the Seawolves (6-9-1) and Nanooks (6-5-1) are each playing a highly competitive brand of hockey at present. UAF narrowly missed qualifying for the national tournament last season, and UAA already has wins under its belt against a pair of ranked Big Ten teams this season.
The most recent Pairwise rankings have UAF at No. 26 and UAA at No. 41. The Nanooks won the first two games of the Cup in early November, taking 6-1 and 5-4 victories in Fairbanks.
“These two programs haven’t been in these spots at the same time in a very, very long time,” UAA head coach Matt Shasby said. “They held court up there the first two games of the year, and now it’s our turn to make a series and take advantage of our home ice that we have done here. But it’s as good as it gets, and I think as good as it has gotten in a long time in terms of this matchup.”
UAF made a strong run at the national tournament last season, but lost some key components of that team in the offseason. Top defensemen Garrett Pyke and Kevin Falk hit the transfer portal and ended up at University of North Dakota and St. Cloud State, respectively. Forward Connor Mylymok transferred to Niagara University and standout goalie Matt Radomsky opted for the ECHL, where he plays for the Rapid City Rush.
The changes and a challenging early season schedule made for a significant learning curve for the Nanooks early this season, but UAF head coach Erik Largen said the team has hit its stride.
“That first weekend against Denver, it showed,” he said. “We were trying to find our identity. But it’s been better since then and we’re playing good hockey right now.”
Brady Risk (5 goals, 10 assists), Harrison Israels (10 goals, 3 assists) and Anton Rubtsov (4 goals, 9 assists) are the team’s leading scorers, while Pierce Charleson (6-4-1, 91.2% save percentage) has been the team’s main goalie.
UAA is coming off an upset win over No. 6-ranked Wisconsin last weekend on the road. Goalie Jared Whale was the hero in the 1-0 victory and has a 91.9% save percentage and a 5-5-1 record.
The Seawolves offense has been led by Ben Almquist (5 goals, 9 assists) and Max Helgeson (7 goals, 5 assists).
Although the Nanooks have dominated the series since UAA was fully reinstated before last season, Largen expects the Avis Alaska Sports Complex to be packed and noisy for the weekend series. For UAF to continue its success against the Seawolves, Largen said the team needs to continue to play hard-nosed, tight-checking hockey and play well on special teams. Although both teams are now Division I independents, the series is still incredibly important, he said.
“I think the importance is still extremely high for both cities and both universities,” Largen said. “The biggest thing is the pride, and it’s also important for our recruiting and trying to be the best programs in Alaska. It’s really important.”
Shasby said the team’s goal was to be .500 into its second season after reinstatement. And while the Seawolves have won some big games and shown consistent improvement, there is plenty of work to do to complete that goal. After this series, the Seawolves won’t play at home again until early February, so winning this weekend is key for the season outlook.
But ultimately, it’s a series against a rival with the Governor’s Cup on the line.
“It’s kind of the one trophy you get to put in your locker room every year, and it’s bragging rights within the state,” he said. “It helps with recruiting if you’re winning against a rival, especially a team as good as Fairbanks is. It’s a big moment for both our programs.”
The puck drops at the Avis Alaska Sports Complex at 7:07 p.m. Friday and 6:07 p.m. Saturday. After the weekend, two more games are remaining in the series: one played in January in Fairbanks and a final matchup in February in Anchorage.