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Wilderness fall just short of first division championship

Minnesota Wilderness forward Robb Stautz fires a shot on net in front of Coulee Region's Dominik Florian during Friday night's NAHL hockey game at Northwoods Arena. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com 1 / 2
Minnesota Wilderness forward Michael Covach looks for a rebound in front of Coulee Region goaltender Adam Carlson during Friday night's NAHL game at Northwoods Arena. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com 2 / 2

To Meat Loaf, two out of three wasn’t bad. For the Minnesota Wilderness, two out of three wasn’t quite good enough.

Needing five points out of their last three games last weekend with Coulee Region to clinch their first-ever NAHL division championship, the Wilderness won twice in three tries — for four points.

That meant the Wilderness (39-15-6) finished in a first-place tie in the Midwest Division with defending Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks (40-16-4) with 84 points … but the Ice Dogs’ home sweep of last place Kenai River last weekend gave them one extra win — and that was the tie-breaker.

So in this case, “two out of three” earned the Wilderness a second division seed and a best-of-five series against third-place Coulee Region beginning April 10 at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

“We’re very disappointed (at not winning the division outright),” Wilderness Coach Corey Millen said. “On Friday night (a 4-2 home loss before 1,569 fans), I didn’t like our approach. We felt we needed to win that game. Losing in overtime would have given us a point but we lost in regulation.”

Coulee Region built a 4-0 second-period lead before goals by Aaron Miller and Michael Covach cut the arrears, but not far enough.

The next night in LaCrosse, the Wilderness were the team jumping to a 4-0 lead — but they kept scoring, thrashing the Chill 8-1 thanks to a hat trick by Darian Romanko and a goal and four helpers by Covach.

“On Saturday, we played with a purpose,” Millen said. “I liked that. The players showed they want to make a statement.”

The game was rough, with 116 penalty minutes handed out, 61 to the Wilderness. But the team found time for five power plays, scoring on three.

If Saturday’s game was rough, Sunday’s regular season finale was even rougher, with 118 penalty minutes assessed in a 3-1 Wilderness win which swept the road portion of the weekend. They spotted the Chill the first goal but came back with markers by Midwest Division Star of the Week Covach, Wayland Williams and Nick Lehtimaki.

Eighty-four of those penalty minutes came in the first period, with exactly half of those coming in an altercation at the 20-minute mark.

“We played very hard on Saturday and Sunday,” Millen said. “It was good to get the points.”

With bad blood already established between the teams, staying out of the penalty box will be key in the playoffs, which begin with 7:05 p.m. games on April 10 and 11 in Cloquet before shifting to LaCrosse for game three on April 17. If necessary, Game Four would be April 18 in LaCrosse and a Game Five would be played in Cloquet on April 20.

“The key to it all is going to be our mental state,” Millen said. “If we engage and play like we can play, we’ll be fine. [Coulee Region is] a good and dangerous team with a good goalie and some dangerous players.”

Statistically, the Wilderness will be favored. Their 22 home wins tied them with Fairbanks for sixth in the league, and they won more road games this season (17) than Coulee Region won home games (16).

Millen trusts that last season’s playoff loss to the Wenatchee Wild will be enough to spur on the team’s second-year players.

“You hope they remember that disappointment and not want to repeat it,” he said. “But, this is a different team and a different year. They’re young kids, and you hope they remember that playing 5 or 10 percent off is not going to win.”

If the team plays to its potential, Millen likes the Wilderness’ chances.

“Realistically, we can go all the way,” he said. “Our problem is that we didn’t make it easy on ourselves at the end of the season so we’re likely to be on the road if we get out of the division — and that’s a big ‘if’ because Fairbanks is a very strong team. But you never know. If you’re in the playoffs, you can do it.”

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