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Wilderness stays hot despite month on the road

CLOQUET -- Joe Dusek stepped into the Minnesota Wilderness' locker room last Friday, then he came right back out. Coach Corey Millen was delivering one of his patented extra-long postgame talks. It's not every day the co-owner of a franchise takes a back seat. But the investment banker from Duluth was reveling in his club's 3-2 victory over the Austin Bruins.

Dusek had gift certificates to dispense. His smile suggested he was more than willing to prolong the good cheer in Northwoods Credit Union Arena, where 500-plus fans showed up to watch the Wilderness' first home game in more than a month.

"We've given up one goal short-handed all year," Dusek said on a night his team didn't even commit a penalty. "Can you believe that? We're far and away the best penalty killing team (in the North American Hockey League)."

A night later, the Wilderness got stung for their second power play goal against in falling 5-0 in front of more than a thousand Austin-ites as part of an in-state home-and-home series. There's always a bigger bear, in this case a Bruins' team that protects its Riverside Arena ice as well as can be, moving to 12-0-0 at home.

Austin (18-8-1) leads the Central division, while the Wilderness (17-5-4) is tied with Fairbanks (Alaska) with 38 points each atop the six-team Midwest division, in the 24-team, four-division NAHL. The fast start to the season has Dusek giddy for more.

"We're really, really pleased," he said. "We couldn't have asked for a better start. It was hard for us to be gone for a month, but we've got an incredibly hard-working team. Our goals allowed are 20-or-more better than the other teams'."

The Wilderness' 41 goals allowed through 26 games is 15 better than Bismarck (N.D.), the next closest, and 73 better than the league's worst, Odessa (Texas). Finnish import Kasimir Kaskisuo, the league's goalie of the month for November, was responsible for much of that -- though the Wilderness' stable of high motor defensemen isn't to be ignored.

Kaskisuo's seven shutouts, 1.27 goals against average and .952 save percentage all lead the league. But on a Friday night billed as "the boys are back in town," his armor began to tarnish as November's glory faded into December's chill. He allowed a goal on the game's first shot -- a goal-line squeaker in traffic that caromed off his back. Then, after Thomas Lindstrom drew the Austin goaltender down like a window blind and scored backhand to put the Wilderness up 2-1 in the third, Kaskisuo surrendered the tying goal moments later.

Dusek called it an "uncharacteristic" night for his goalie, who was saved by Billy Exell's game-winning rip from an end zone face-off circle.

"I caught the defense flat-footed," Exell said. "I got in front of my guy and put it on."

Whether Kaskisuo is as good as his November or he was merely enjoying a hot month remains to be seen. He's quick up-and-down in his butterfly. He seals the posts like pythons coil their prey. Good form. But against Austin, his function wavered as he gave up rebounds galore and lost track of the puck too easily.

Dusek wondered if an athlete might rest on his laurels after winning an honor like Kaskisuo did for his stellar November. Still, the owner wasn't fretting yet. He likes his squad.

"It's hard to stay top of mind in the community when there's UMD and high school hockey going on," Dusek said. "But we've had great crowds, great support even as the team was gone on the road a month."

Kaskisuo carried the Wilderness for that long stretch. But in being outscored by an in-state rival 7-3 over two games, other areas were revealed as the team's true worries -- namely scoring firepower.

"We know we've got a guy who's going to back us up," said Exell, who is among the team leaders with seven goals on a hockey club whose 64 total goals are just one up from the league low of 63.

What the Wilderness put in front of Kaskisuo will determine where the season goes from here. They created numerous scoring opportunities in 40 shots against Austin on Friday, but buried only three. The next night: just 18 shots in the shutout loss.

Exell might have put the recipe for success best when he said Friday, "It's a good feeling when everyone gets involved."

FYI: The Minnesota Wilderness played the Minnesota Magicians at home as this issue of the Pine Journal went to press. The Wilderness are next at home in a pair of games starting at 7:05 p.m. Dec. 27-28 at Northwoods Credit Union Arena against Kenai Riv