Wilderness start playoffsThe Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team is awaiting the winner of a best-of-three series between the Thunder Bay North Stars and Minnesota Iron Rangers to find out who they’re playing in this weekend’s playoff games.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
The Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team is awaiting the winner of a best-of-three series between the Thunder Bay North Stars and Minnesota Iron Rangers to find out who they’re playing in this weekend’s playoff games.
The North Stars and Iron Rangers were set to play the deciding game in their series on Wednesday night in Thunder Bay as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press. The winner will face the Wilderness in a best-of-seven series, starting with two 7:30 p.m. home games at Northwoods Credit Union Arena Friday and Saturday.
The Wilderness (51-3-0-0) will be prohibitive favorites in the series against either the North Stars (28-27-0-1) or the Iron Rangers (26-28-0-2).
“We haven’t played since last Thursday,” Coach Rod Aldoff said. “So we’re rested, we’re fine, and we’re excited and ready to go.”
The Wilderness last played in league on March 2, in a 6-0 win over Thunder Bay. The long layoff is made more severe by the fact that the team had the Superior International Junior Hockey League championship sewn up weeks ago.
“We are unique because we clinched first place some time ago,” Aldoff said. “It would have been easy to glide in with rankings and standings being what they were but we don’t look at those. We want to play the game the way we need to play to win in the playoffs. I give the kids credit because they stuck together and played hard.”
The Wilderness were led in regular season scoring by Mike Dietrich (28/49/77), Jake Larson (44/28/72) and Jordan Shockley (20/39/59). The team also connected over 30 percent of the time on its power play on the way to scoring a league-leading 278 goals in league play.
In goal, Gordy Defiel (25-1-2, 1.39, .945) and JoJo Jeanetta (22-2-0, 1.79, .937) have both been excellent.
The playoff series will be played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format.
Aldoff is ready for his team to get back on the ice and had praise for his players for handling the long layoff so well.
“We do a bit of everything to change it up,” he said. “You don’t want a long, boring routine. The guys come to the rink to keep things fresh and new every day. We scrimmage, we do skill stuff or we work on systems. We’re trying to change it up. It keeps the kids’ attention.”
The playoffs will bring an end to a solid first season in Cloquet for the team and organization.
“The experience has been very good,” Aldoff said. “I’ve seen nothing but positive feedback from fans and the town. We’re trying to build a fan base and put a product on the ice that people will enjoy. The fans have been very nice to us and very good to us. We have nothing but positive things to say.”
The team has had to come into an area traditionally dominated by high school hockey and has adapted well.
“Any town you go to at the start, you have to earn the respect of the people,” Aldoff said. “You have to run a good program and show we are here to run a good program. People come and see it and hopefully respect that.”
The North Stars are led in scoring by Matt Kaarela (35/21/56) and the Iron Rangers are paced by Joey Haydock (20/27/47), but Aldoff has no preference on his first-round opponent.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “At the end of the day you have to beat everybody and anybody. We have to be prepared for anyone.
“We have a goal and obviously we are here to win the whole thing,” he added. “Of course you have to take it one game at a time and can’t look any farther than that in the playoffs. We aren’t looking any further.”