Wilderness prep for playoffs
The Minnesota Wilderness know their first-round playoff opponent heading into their last series of the NAHL regular season. The only issue is who will have home ice advantage.
The Wilderness (31-21-3) are in a flat-footed tie for second place in the Central Division with the Austin Bruins heading into this weekend's series with last-place Brookings (23-28-2) at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.
However, the Bruins still have a game in hand, with a road matchup with the Minnesota Magicians before their season-ending series with fifth-place Bismarck.
"All season long we've talked about home-ice advantage as a motivator to the kids," coach Tim Madsen said. "Now we have a chance to go get it for ourselves."
All four playoff divisional playoff positions have been determined. Aberdeen has clinched the division with Minot fourth. Those teams will meet in the first round.
But after all the adversity the Wilderness have endured this season, a first-round home-ice advantage would be just great.
"I don't think there's a team in our division and maybe not in our league that's gone through what these players have," Madsen said. "From injury to illness to roster turnover, for these players to go where they've gone is a great achievement."
One of the sparks to the team in recent weeks has been former Duluth East forward Garrett Worth, who is with the team through the playoffs. The recent Arizona State commit has scored six goals and added two assists in eight games with the team.
CEC forward Landon Langenbrunner is also with the team through the playoffs and has contributed three assists in five games.
"To have fresh legs and enthusiastic players join us at this stage of the season is a motivator for everyone including the coaches," Madsen said. "For them it's like September, with the season just starting. They have great energy and it rubs off on everyone. Garrett gives us a bit of a scoring touch that we've lacked and that helps."
CEC's Ryan Nelson has scored a goal in four games, with Hermantown's Tyler Watkins adding two goals and three assists in five games, but neither player is eligible for the playoffs.
The "new-look" Wilderness swept Minot last weekend in Cloquet, by scores of 2-0 and 3-2. On Friday, Jacob Sibell stopped 36 shots to back up goals from the former Greyhounds, Worth and Ash Altmann, in the win.
On Saturday, Ryan Fanti stopped 35 of 37 shots in a 3-2 triumph. Isaac Moberg, Gino Lucia and Edward Lindelow scored the goals for the home team.
The Wilderness were outshot in both games but found a way to win, which is another reason Madsen finds this team to be special.
"The adversity," he repeated. "The games we've won where we came from behind, the resiliency these kids have shown. It's coming together at the right time. Nobody wants to play us right now."
With his team unbeaten in its last six games heading into the playoffs, Madsen is probably right. And this is a resilient bunch.
"If you had this year's team play last year's team in five-on-five shinny, last year's team wins 20-0," Madsen said. "They had skill and size. But if you play a best-of-five series, my money's on this year's team. They just don't quit."
And with the playoffs looming large ahead, now is certainly not the time to start thinking about it.