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Wilderness plowing through SIJHL playoffs

CLOQUET -- Thirteen seconds remained Saturday when the Minnesota Wilderness players gathered around coach Rod Aldoff. Their mission: preserve a 2-1 lead.

"Trip them," said Aldoff, the onetime UMD defenseman. "Whatever it takes!"

It was sound strategy, given that a possible penalty and resulting power play could not alone extend a period. Only a goal could save their Hoyt Lakes' neighbors, the Minnesota Iron Rangers. Only a goal that never came. The 2-1 victory at Northwoods Credit Union Arena and Tuesday's subsequent 4-1 win over the Iron Rangers gave the Wilderness a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series that had a chance to wrap up Thursday night in Hoyt Lakes.

Chances were good for a close-out victory, as the Wilderness' season-long dominance of the Superior International Junior Hockey League includes 54 victories against just three losses. The SIJHL finals loom in early April (against the winner of the other league semifinal between Fort Frances and Dryden). A series victory there would leave the Canadian Junior Hockey League's No. 2-ranked Wilderness on track for a possible collision course matchup with the No. 1-ranked CJHL club, the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. That dream matchup, a possibility at the Royal Bank Cup in May, is still a ways down the line -- with the Wilderness needing first to win the SIJHL, then something called the Dudley-Hewitt Cup after that.

Which is to say, the dream is alive for defenseman Dan Divis & Co.

Divis scored both goals in Saturday's victory. Divis, of Media, Pa., came away impressed from the scrap with the Iron Rangers, who are roughly .500 on the season. They're a game opponent, but an outmatched one at that.

"They play us as good as any team in our league," Divis said. "These games are fun to play."

The Wilderness' post-game celebration Saturday was muted. In the locker room music blared seemingly out of formality. The leather lounge chairs in the center of the room sat empty. The players merely replaced their gear with their pregame suits and ties -- the atmosphere one of mission, one not ready to go full-Timberlake 'til the mission was over.

"This is the best locker room I've ever been a part of in my life," Divis said. "It's a brotherhood. When you win games you feel good about it and you come together over it."

Fundamentally a developmental program, where a player's stats and personal facts can make the difference between a future Division I college scholarship or a ticket punched to a hometown adult league, Aldoff said the players on his team have transcended individual achievements.

"They don't look at stats," Aldoff said. "This is a good group of kids. They play hard; they love the game."

The team's first season in Cloquet comes at a time when the Duluth entry into the league folded midway through the season. It's a fickle gambit, this junior hockey business. A "5-for-fighting" mentality can draw even the best teams into a more, shall we say, uncivilized style of play. But for the Wilderness, it's T-E-A-M above all. Crisp. Tight. Hockey.

"Everybody," Divis said, "plays a part."

SIJHL Semifinals

March 22 - Wilderness 8, Iron Rangers 3

March 23 - Wilderness 2, Iron Rangers 1

March 26 - Wilderness 4, Iron Rangers 1 (Wilderness lead best-of-seven series 3-0)

March 28 - Wilderness at Iron Rangers (late)

March 30 - Iron Rangers at Wilderness, 7:30 p.m. (if necessary)

April 1 - Wilderness at Iron Rangers (if necessary)

April 3 - Iron Rangers at Wilderness (if necessary)