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Wilderness bring home the gold

Minnesota Wilderness goalie Gordy Defiel (35) keeps an eye on the puck as teammates try to stop Mason Meyer of the Fort Frances Lakers from getting the puck in Game 5 of the SIJHL Bill Salonen Cup playoffs, played Saturday in Cloquet. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

CLOQUET -- You could say the downtrodden team that left the ice Saturday was not the same Minnesota Wilderness team that was dog-piling into a gleeful team photo two days later, after Monday's close-out league championship series victory.

You could also say that Saturday's bummer end of a 3-1 result had a lot to do with Monday's table-turning 3-2 double overtime victory over the Fort Frances Lakers. You could say it because the Wilderness's Game 6 series clincher on the road came with enough grit and urgency to prove the Wilderness didn't want anything to do with a Game 7 -- even if it meant coming home one more time in a 56-5-0-2 campaign.

Not even Ben Michaud wanted to play another home game. The Cloquet native and lone homegrown on the Minnesota Wilderness roster spent the final 10 minutes of Saturday's game in the locker room after a third period outburst of physicality that may as well have been the assistant captain's way of releasing steam for the whole team.

"It backfired on us," said Michaud after the game. "We didn't come out to play; we outshot them but we got burned in a way, too. We were too cocky."

The shots were a lopsided 55-27, but in reality Michaud's self-flagellation was covering for a simpler truth: that Fort Frances goalie Talor Joseph stole the game and nearly the series.

The 18-year-old Albertan proved equally pedestrian (as in Game 5 when New Jersey's Mike Dietrich scored all five goals in a 5-3 Wilderness triumph) and prodigious (as in his 54-save effort Saturday). In Saturday's home game, the Wilderness peppered the goalie early with tracers he just gobbled up. Once worked into a suitable lather, Joseph made look easy all sorts of stops that were anything but. There was no beating Joseph. That was twice in the series.

Heading into Monday's Game 6, you could hear the Wilderness' urgency in Michaud's voice.

"They came out more ready than we did and that's not something we can get away with," Michaud said.

Pushed to the brink of an elimination game again Monday, the Lakers and Joseph's crescendo-ing play came to a sudden halt. After a 10-minute overtime, the Wilderness won the game and the league's Bill Salonen Cup for the third straight year (first in Cloquet) in the second extra period as Jeremy Johnson stripped the puck from a Fort Frances defender behind the net and quickly deposited the tally past a surprised Joseph.

The road win led to the giddy team photo you can see at Steeled by having beaten a red-hot goalie to win a league championship, the team next heads to the four-team Dudley-Hewitt Cup in North Bay, Ontario, April 30 to May 4 to decide the Central Canadian Junior "A" champion.

There will be no more home games from here on out.

For Ben Michaud, it's been a memorable ride. Saturday's game included his parents serving as goal judges and more love raining from the stands.

"Oh, it's been great," he said. "It's fun to play at home. My parents are here every game, and some of my really good friends are here."

Plus, the assistant captain believes he's rolling with a team he can count on.

Said the local leader of Cloquet's newest hockey champion: "I've never played with such a great group of guys."

SIJHL Bill Salonen Cup results

Game 1: Wilderness 5, Lakers 1

Game 2: Lakers 2, Wilderness 1 (OT)

Game 3: Wilderness 4, Lakers 1

Game 4: Wilderness 5, Lakers 3

Game 5: Lakers 3, Wilderness 1

Game 6: Wilderness 3, Lakers 2 (OT)