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Wilderness continue to dazzle

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CLOQUET – The 2013-14 season for the Minnesota Wilderness will go down as an unqualified success no matter how the rest of the season plays out. There are many markers for such a claim. For an expansion team in the North American Hockey League to be within hailing distance of the league’s best record is one reason. For any team to give its home fans an 18-5-1 record is another.

Last weekend’s sweep of Central Division leaders Bismarck at Northwoods Credit Union Arena, 3-2 on Valentine’s Day and 2-1 on Saturday, put the Wilderness’ success in further focus.

“That was a great weekend, “ said the team’s leading scorer Jakob Romo. “It’s great to get four points.”

“That’s a really skilled team,” Coach Corey Millen said of the opposition, as a way of sounding proud of his hockey club for coming away with two regulation victories.

Once again, Romo led the way with three assists in the two games, including feeding both goals Saturday.

At just 18 years old, Romo is already a three-year veteran of the league. He was traded to Minnesota last offseason after two seasons in Fairbanks, Alaska. By far, this has been the most impactful campaign yet for the native of Fullerton, Calif.

“It was awesome being traded to an expansion team, getting to be a first-line guy, putting up points and helping our team win,” Romo said. “That’s really what this year is about for me.”

For the Wilderness, who struggled to score goals early on in the season, Romo’s development counts as a revelation. He’s extremely quick on his feet and plays the neutral zone with intensity and cunning, intercepting passes and turning those into instant offense, which he did numerous times against the Bismarck Bobcats. Romo leads the team in every scoring category – goals (15), assists (18), plus/minus (+25), game-winning goals (6), shots (150). His play against Bismarck counts as indicative of his scoring ability. On both goals Saturday, he passed up open space shots in favor of better opportunities for teammates Tyler Hart and Brent Bockman.

“The goalie was overplaying me for the shot,” he said, “so I had to give it over. If a teammate is open, I’m going to pass. It’s the better of the team that really counts.”

Romo’s development from roster fodder in Fairbanks as a 16- and 17-year-old, to veteran lynchpin for the Wilderness is something Millen points to as a key to the team’s success.

“He’s grown as a player and can be a big deal for us,” Millen said. “I’m hard on him.”

Getting Romo to be at his best in the neutral zone has keyed the team’s offense of late. It was evident against Bismarck, a high-scoring outfit that was stunted by the Romo-led forechecking.

“That’s a really good team, highly skilled and dangerous,” Millen said, “We wanted to angle them, push them and turn pucks over in transition.”

Romo and company obliged.

“The forecheck our coaches have us run is really good,” Romo said, sounding like a man with full buy-in. “I take advantage of it, using my skill and speed to jump pucks.”

The wins were the eighth in the last 10 games for the streaking Wilderness, who go on the road for a set of games at Minot (N.D.) this weekend, followed by a pair at home against Brookings (S.D), Feb. 28 and March 1.

The only bugaboo of late has been a 1-5 mark through January and February against Coulee Region (Wisc.) The Chill trails the Wilderness 62 points to 58 in the Midwest standings. Fairbanks leads both teams with a division- and league-best 74 points, having played three more games than both of its nearest competitors.

The Wilderness will test themselves against the Chill six times in their final 13 regular season games.

“They have our number,” Romo said.

“We’ve given up some bad goals against them and they’ve got some guys who can bury the puck,” said Millen, whose team was swept by Coulee Region as recently as Feb. 7-8. “We had a bit of a mental lapse against them that I wasn’t really happy with. But we’ve got our concentration back.”

Thanks in large part to the rising play of Romo.

Said Romo, echoing the 1,200 fans who watched last weekend’s games, “It’s been a great season so far.”