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Wilderness pick up much-needed win

CLOQUET — In the midst of a downer of a stretch, the Minnesota Wilderness were looking for a pick-me-up Saturday at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. They got one in the form of a shutout from backup goaltender Frank Oplinger. The Sewickley, Pa., 19-year-old, saved 24 shots in all fashions — from stick handle to boot toe — in lifting the team to a 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Magicians.

The win in front of 375 fans put a temporary halt to a 1-6-0 stretch for the team, during which it was outscored 20-8.

“Yeah, we’ve been having some trouble scoring goals,” Coach Corey Millen said. “We needed it. Wins have been hard to come by. We get two goals and should have had six or seven; that’s just the way things have been going for us.”

Magicians goalie Atte Tolvanen was the story for much of the night as he seemed to have the “kick-the-net-from-the-moorings” trick down pat.

“That was a lot of our discussions [with the referees],” Millen said. “You have to warn him of that. He’s doing it every time we get a sustained attack. Our goalies have done it too, but if it’s six, eight times that he’s pushing off you’ve got to make him accountable and say you can’t do it anymore.”

The Wilderness got on the board early (sigh!) when Jakob Romo put a soft one past Tolvanen. Thomas Lindstrom got the second goal on a pretty one-time feed from Eric Brenk later in the first period to end the scoring.

The Wilderness held the Magicians to 12 shots through the first two periods, firing on as many cylinders as haven’t of late.

“We were playing our butts off our there,” Millen said.

Romo and Lindstrom lead the club in goals with 10 and 11, respectively. The team improved to 19-9-5, keeping them five points back of Fairbanks (48 to 43) and one point up on Onalaska, Wisconsin’s Coulee Region (42) in the North American Hockey League’s six-team Midwest Division. The Wilderness also evened its record at 3-3 against the Magicians (of Richfield), the division’s cellar dweller with 34 points.

The Wilderness’ 75 goals remain a league low, but their 56 allowed continues to be a league best.

“I’m concerned about it,” Millen said of the paucity of scoring. “It makes things more difficult. We’re going to get better, but when you’re not scoring a lot, you’ve got to win 2-0.”

Fortunately, Oplinger was on his game. He’s younger than the team’s MVP, Kasimir Kaskisuo, who has claim to being the league’s best netminder. But, forced into play due to Kaskisuo’s injured ankle, Oplinger is finding his way and helping out the team by lowering his goals against average to a shrinking 1.97.

“He played really well tonight,” Millen said. “In the last few games, he’s given up one he didn’t like and I didn’t like and that’s put us at a disadvantage. When you’re not scoring goals and you give one up you’re not in love with, that’s a problem. Tonight, he did a great job.”