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Celebration!! Minnesota Wilderness forward Jakob Romo scores in the second period of Sunday’s Game 3 of the NAHL divisional semifinals. Teammates Thomas Lindstrom (21) and Jesse Kessler (22) watch as Eric Brenk (5) jumps on Romo. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

Wilderness survive tough start to playoffs

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The Minnesota Wilderness avoided a surprising first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Wenatchee Wild this week, winning a crucial game three on Sunday afternoon to cling to playoff life down two games to one in the best-of-five event.

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Friday night’s opener was a disappointment, as the Wilderness dropped a 3-0 decision to the Wild before 1,107 fans at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

David Polowski, Matthew Nuttle and Nicholas Rivera scored the goals for the visitors from Washington, with goaltender Chase Perry stopping 29 shots to earn the shutout. UMD recruit Kasimir Kaskisuo stopped 27 of 30 shots in goal for the Wilderness.

But Kaskisuo had a much more difficult evening on Saturday in Game Two.

Playing before a crowd of 1,341, the Wild victimized Kaskisuo for two goals on just five shots in the opening 20 minutes, during which the revitalized Wilderness outshot their guests 12-5.

After Alex Rauter’s backhander on the power play gave Wenatchee a 1-0 lead, Darian Romanko scored the Wilderness’ first goal of the series from the slot at 15:34 of the session to tie the game. The Wilderness then took their first lead of the series on Jakob Romo’s power play goal at 18:41 during a major power play, but then the Wild scored a huge goal from a momentum standpoint.

Kaskisuo allowed a soft goal on the same power play, with Alex Rauter’s shot from the right wing boards deflecting off the goaltender’s glove and in for a 2-2 tie after the first period that the Wild’s play hardly deserved.

“I thought we played a perfect first period, exactly what we asked our boys to do,” Wilderness coach Corey Millen said. “But pucks went in for them (Wenatchee). They got bounces.  I just feel bad for the players. We got a great effort from most of our team in that period and it wound up tied.”

In the second period, Frank Oplinger replaced Kaskisuo in the Wilderness goal and made a remarkable save with the paddle of his goal stick on Wenatchee’s Troy Loggins — before Loggins beat him with his very next shot at 4:27 for a 3-2 Wenatchee lead.

The Wilderness tied the game when Eric Brenk’s intelligent cross-ice pass found the crashing Richard Buri at the left point and his rising shot beat Perry for a 3-3 tie at 8:06. However, Wenatchee’s Rivera got the eventual game winner at 14:21, scoring from a sharp angle to Oplinger’s left after a fine cross-ice feed from Omar Mullan.

The Wild held the Wilderness off the board in the third period with Perry stopping all 11 shots he faced — including a drive off his mask from defenseman Terry Leabo with five minutes to play — to hold on to the win.

“The first period we were great, the second period we had a letdown and in the third period I felt we came out and did exactly what we needed to do to win the game, and their goalie stood tall,” Millen said. “They got some luck but sometimes you have to create it yourself.”

Sunday’s game three was thus an elimination game for the Wilderness and they played a much better game, whitewashing the Wild to pick up their first win of the series.

A smaller crowd of 542 fans saw the Wilderness kill off four power plays while getting only one of their own, but scoring in each period.

Jaycob McCombs opened the scoring at 18:06 of the first period, before a pair of goals from Romo in the second staked Kaskisuo to a 3-0 lead after two periods.

This time, Kaskisuo made it stand up, stopping all 24 shots he faced for the win, while Michael Covach hit an empty net with 36 seconds left in the game to seal a 4-0 win. Perry stopped 18 of 21 shots in goal for Wenatchee.

As the series heads to Washington this week, Millen has a great deal of respect for Wenatchee’s defensive game.

“They are a good team, they are fast, they skate well and they swarm the puck,” Millen said. “Give them credit. They are a really good team, a better team than their record shows.”

Game Four will be Friday night in Wenatchee, Washington, with Game Five, if necessary, on Saturday night. Millen is proud of how far the team has come.

“When it’s all said and done, we have performed pretty well,” he said. “But we get greedy. We want to be better. Playing the way we can, playing well, we can beat anybody.”

“Anybody” is now Wenatchee, and the Wilderness will have to do it twice more in order to keep their season alive. They will have to do it without what is now a large and noisy fan base in town.

“We are very happy with how the momentum of this town and this community has built up,” Millen said. “People come from wherever to watch us. It’s gained steam and gained momentum and it’s been really great [in the playoffs].”

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