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JUNIOR HOCKEY: Wilderness mix, match way to win

Minnesota Wilderness Coach Corey Millen (holding white paper) is poised on the bench during last Saturday night's game against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
Terry Leabo (3) and goalie Frank Oplinger of the Minnesota Wilderness are determined to stop the Fairbanks Ice Dog in front of the net during the third period of Saturday night's game 5-2 victory. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

CLOQUET -- At any given Minnesota Wilderness game there are a dozen or more young men, dressed in black, standing out for the way they stand out in the crowd. (And, yes, it was quite a crowd over the home-opening weekend, including being actually large and loud enough to erupt at a sniped goal from the point).

These well-dressed and Thicke-coifed young men -- the rest of the roster, those who would be transaction-ally described as "undressed," and in some cases who might very well be the walking wounded -- politely nod and appear to be on firm orders to stand out in the right way and not the wrong way. You, stand out by politely nodding.

These are Corey Millen's guys, too. These are the guys who are just like the guys in the armor. Only, today, Saturday, they're not. They're not among the guys who go over the Northwoods Credit Union Arena boards and lead the way to a 5-2 win over a Fairbanks team that wilted when the Wilderness skaters started tilting and really getting low into their skates, getting under and around and out-doing a Fairbanks team that only exacerbated its situation with numerous frustration penalties.

[Incidentally, it looked as if the Alaskans were struggling in altitude when the Wilderness ripped off four straight goals, including three in a dominant second period. Hands were on hips, breathing was heavy. A quick search revealed the Ice Dogs were in fact playing at altitude. Eight hundred fifty three feet up, to be exact, going from Fairbanks' 446 feet to our 1,279.]

Back to the sharp dressed guys, "Millen's Maître d's" call 'em, what do they even matter?

"We're banged up," said Millen, surrounded by well-wishers in the lobby post game. "We've already got seven or eight injuries. It makes things pretty hectic, with all the mixing and matching."

Millen blamed the roster upheaval for a bad line change that cost the team the deciding goal in Friday's 2-1 loss to Fairbanks. A day later, the team gave up another breakaway on a bad line change. Goalie Frank Oplinger was up to the challenge that time. (He was also up to the challenge of a 5-minute major Saturday, with eight saves in a furious five minutes to preserve a 4-1 lead and further deflate the Ice Dogs.)

The benefits of Millen's 28-man roster revealed themselves in the landslide.

"We played a team game," said assistant coach Josh Petrich.

"We're going to be a scoring-by-committee team," Millen said. "It's a balanced group with a lot of guys who can contribute."

So far, if anybody stands out, it's John May. He scored twice Saturday. At 6-foot-4 he's imposing. With red hair to punctuate his commanding play, the Mahtomedi Minnesotan is easy to spot. A fellow 6-footer, the 6-5 defenseman Richard Buri, spearheaded the defense and the power play. It was the Slovakian's blast from the point that made it 3-1 Saturday and set the crowd to flash, capturing the moment with an explosive cheer that spoke well for the Wilderness' current support system.

Millen noticed.

"So far so good," he said with his GM's hat on, when asked about the crowd.

Next up is this weekend's home-and-home affair with the Minnesota (Richfield) Magicians. Game time Friday is 7:05 p.m. at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Saturday's game is in Richfield.

"It should be high intensity," Millen said. "It's a rivalry game and it's not going to be easy. We expect a tough game from everybody."

Surrounded by men in black, Millen and Company go confidently on.