League champion Wilderness heads into playoffsThe Minnesota Wilderness effectively had another league championship locked up months ago. They’ve had it locked up officially for nearly a month.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
The Minnesota Wilderness effectively had another league championship locked up months ago. They’ve had it locked up officially for nearly a month.
The official margin of victory was 39 points – the Wilderness finished their 54-game regular season in a Superior International Junior Hockey League reduced to five teams due to the Duluth Clydesdales suspending operations – but now Coach Rod Aldoff and his players have the “second season” to look forward to.
The fourth-placed Minnesota Iron Rangers and fifth-placed Thunder Bay North Stars will play a best-of-three series to determine who faces the Wilderness in a best-of-seven semifinal round beginning March 22.
“The kids have been excited for a while now to get the playoffs going,” Aldoff said. “We were fortunate to have a good regular season and clinch first place a while ago.”
That they did. In their first year of calling Cloquet home, the Wilderness outscored regular season opponents 282-85 and boasted the league’s top two (and three of the top five) point scorers.
They had two of the top five goal scorers, four of the top five assist men, three of the top five in power-play goals and the top three in game-winning goals.
Wilderness goaltenders Gordy Defiel and JoJo Jeanetta were 1-2 in the league in shutouts, goals-against average, saves percentage and wins.
That adds up to a SIJHL juggernaut, and Aldoff admits that keeping the players focused has been a challenge.
“That’s been the biggest critical thing,” he said. “We wanted to keep them focused on finishing the year strong, and not gliding into the playoffs. You can develop bad habits that way but we want to play the game the way it should be played. Our kids are very focused and played hard until the end of the season.”
The Wilderness (51-3-0) finished second in the final Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings of the season, a position they have held for the last 13 weeks. The Brooks Bandits of the 14-team Alberta Junior Hockey League (53-4-3) are ranked first.
It’s possible the teams may meet in playoffs down the road, but Aldoff is more worried about getting through the two best-of-seven series in the SIJHL playoffs that his team will need to win.
“Now that the regular season is over, we focus on game one,” he said. “We have to take care of business in our league and that will be tough. We have a lot of work to do. We can’t think ahead into the playoffs. We have to think of the task at hand.”
Offensively, the Wilderness is led by league scoring champion Mike Dietrich (28-48-76) and league goal-scoring champion Jake Larson (43-28-71). Michael MacKinnon (18-34-52) has completed the first line in recent games but the second line of Jeremy Johnson (28-28-56), Jordan Shockley (19-38-57) and Nick Szopinski (5-12-17 in 28 games) is also potent.
“That’s a very good group of hockey players,” Aldoff said. “They do a lot of damage most nights and will have to do that throughout the playoffs.”
Cloquet native Ben Michaud has been paired with Nick McCormack on defense recently. Both players have 38 points, with McCormack scoring 14 goals and Michaud four.
“Defensively, we’re committed,” Aldoff said. “We make sure we take care of our own end.”
The goaltending has had a lot to do with that too. Defiel (24-1-2, 1.43, .943) and Jeanetta (22-2-0, 1.79, .937) were statistically the two best goaltenders in the league this season.
“We are deep,” Aldoff said. “With everyone clicking, we are tough and deep. We’ve also got some injured players coming back and we’ll have a full roster of 23 players when everyone’s back in the lineup.”