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Wilderness secure playoff spot with solid first season in NAHL

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CLOQUET—We all knew Corey Millen was coming home to coach the inaugural campaign of the Minnesota Wilderness in the North American Hockey League. But did any of us know he’d be such a shrewd general manager, too?

With four games remaining to play in the regular season, the Minnesota Wilderness enter play Friday at 7:05 p.m. against Coulee Region at Northwoods Credit Union Arena with a playoff spot already reserved in the 24-team North American Hockey League. The Wilderness are guaranteed two home playoff games once those playoffs begin in April by virtue of owning the fourth best overall mark in the league at 33-14-9, good for 75 points.

“Honestly, we had such a late start and so much to do so quickly,” Millen said, “I felt if we were .500 this year that’d have been pretty good.”

The story of the Wilderness’ winning roster can be told in its goaltending and Millen’s manipulation of the position. You have to remember, the team started from scratch.

“It’s a tough deal to put people together, especially when you don’t have all the fate in your hands,” Millen said, referring to all the factors that have to align for a player to ever hit his practice ice. “We were going against a lot of these teams that have been doing this for 15 years. They’ve got notes on kids two years removed. We’re still playing catch-up on recruiting and getting to know the kids.”

What Millen did know is that his team needed goaltending. So he drafted a lot of it. Hoping to land one solid option, he struck it big on three of them. Two, Kasimir Kaskisuo and Frank Oplinger, have spent the season dominating for the Wilderness. They both own soaring save percentages and can be credited with bailing out the team when it struggled with scoring woes. A third draftee, Connor Girard, was dealt from a position of depth to the Brookings Blizzard, netting the Wilderness its leading scorer, Eric Brenk. Girard went on to earn a scholarship to Air Force for his play this season, meaning Millen traded no slouch.

“We had two good goalies and we started to look at the pieces we had in place and get greedy,” Millen said. “That’s the nature of the beast. You want more. We were fortunate to have some pieces fall into place.”

Brenk is a big-framed scorer and a big reason why the team’s scoring woes turned into scoring punch. The line of Brenk, Billy Exell and Thomas Lindstrom is fueling the team of late.

“We all just fit really well together,” said Lindstrom, whose uncle is the former Minnesota Wild coach and current Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. “Billy’s obviously got a ton of speed. Brenk can score goals; he’s got a big frame. I just try to fit in there and make plays and know they’ll set me up nicely.”

Trading for Brenk early in the season followed Millen’s trade last summer for team leader Terry Leabo. Millen followed up the Brenk acquisition with trades for plus-defenseman Jesse Kessler and fireplug offensive player Jaycob McCombs. For all his wheeling and dealing, Millen struck the right recipe for team success.

“We’ve all just been really motivated from the beginning,” Lindstrom said. “In the beginning we were ranked 23 of 24 teams in the league and that’s something Coach Millen really let us know. We’ve used that as motivation from the start.”

An early season 10 game-winning streak let Millen and his charges know that what they had in the locker room could be something more special than a .500 hockey club.

“We went on that 10-game winning streak and we were having fun,” Lindstrom said.

The early success motivated Millen, the general manager, to keep stockpiling pieces, to keep pushing his club to greater heights.

“I liked the way our team was playing,” he said. “I liked the brand we were playing and we thought, ‘Well, we might be better than we thought.’”

Millen didn’t just supplement his roster with scoring. Wearing his coach’s cap, he developed it, too, with 10 a.m. scorers-only sessions that got the players thinking more quickly on their feet through what Lindstrom called “quick plays” drills.

“That’s something I struggled with, personally, was quick release of the puck,” said Lindstrom, still just 19 years old and not far removed from Minnesota’s Breck School. “Before, I think we’d all get the puck and want to stick-handle it before we shot it. Now, we’re one-timing pucks and scoring like that.”

If Tuesday’s practice was any indication, the Wilderness move so fast it’s a wonder they find the time to get anything done. The tempo of Millen’s practice is top fuel. He delivers succinct messages like, “Take care of the puck and put it in.”

Even with playoffs to come, Millen is already eying the 2014-15 campaign — looking ahead like a good GM should. He’s fairly certain he’ll return to the team though there’s no agreement in place yet. He continues to learn the galaxy of players who are available for the Wilderness to tender contracts to, trying to close the gap on those “15-year” franchises.

For the moment, he’s happy to coach a winner and manage a roster that’s come together at lightning speed.

“We’re still new to the party,” Millen said. “We’re still battling that.”