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Wilderness at the top of their game as playoffs approach

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CLOQUET—Joshua Petrich looked out onto the ice and more than his reflection looked back at him from the Northwoods Credit Union Arena plexiglass.

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Petrich seemed to see the Minnesota Wilderness’ season that had been unfolding in a blur. What he saw, he liked.

“We’re really happy with everything,” said Petrich, who joins Dan Daikawa as one of head coach Corey Millen’s assistants on the playoff-bound junior hockey club, which is 35-14-9, including 22-6-2 at home. “The team’s performance has more than met expectations.”

A couple days later, the Wilderness continued its late season roll with a sweep of Coulee Region, winning 7-1 Friday at home and 5-3 Saturday in Onalaska, Wis.

Defenseman Richard Buri called Friday’s rout, “probably our best win so far this season.”

“They’re still fighting for their spot in the playoffs,” said Buri, whose own team sewed up a Midwest Division playoff berth in the 24-team North American Hockey League a couple weeks ago. “We dominated and played the right way. We should play like this all the rest of our games.”

With Buri and company, anything is possible in a season in which they’ve gone from supposed doormat to battering ram. Buri picked up a point and an assist over the weekend as the team filled the stat sheet up and down the lineup. Jakob Romo and Eric Brenk, the team’s leading goal-scorers, picked up three goals apiece. Darian Romanko added a pair of goals Saturday.

What’s more? Earlier this month, Buri became the third player from the team to sign a contract to play Division I hockey in 2014-15. He joins goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo (University of Minnesota-Duluth) and forward Brett Heikkila (Northern Michigan) as DI signees. Buri is headed to the South’s only DI hockey program, joining the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The 6-foot-5 Buri cuts a towering figure on the ice, but he’s light on his feet, too. He’s a key figure on the team’s penalty killing unit, which shuts down a league-best 92.7 percent of power plays. It’s easy to be impressed by that insane number. Just as it’s easy to see what attracted scouts to Buri.

“It’s everybody’s dream who is playing in the NAHL to get a DI contract,” said the 20-year-old Slovakian. “I’m fortunate. It’s always something I dreamed of.”

Alabama Huntsville was recently featured in The New York Times for all the travel considerations the team faces being from the South. Logistics are no matter to Buri, though.

“There’s a new coach there and he’s rebuilding their whole team,” said Buri, one of several junior hockey commitments to the school. “I’m excited to play there next season.”

To the matter at hand, the upcoming NAHL playoffs, Buri said the team is playing “as sharp as ever.”

How does the team reconcile facing the individual player’s goal of personal advancement while trying to succeed as a unit on the ice? Petrich offered a quick answer by saying the two are not opposing ends, but complementary ones.

“We’re about developing and advancing players,” Petrich said. “It’s a huge deal. And if you’re doing that right, you’re going to have a good team.”

Clearly, a good team and good fortune for its players make it a good time to be a member of the Minnesota Wilderness.

The team goes on the road for a pair of games this weekend at Coulee Region and at the Minnesota Magicians. They return home April 4-5 for a playoff series against a yet-to-be-determined opponent as Coulee Region, Kenai River and Wenatchee are battling for the Midwest Division’s final two playoff berths. No. 1 seed Fairbanks will play the fourth seed and the No. 2 Wilderness will play the third seed. Both of the upcoming playoff games begin at 7:05 p.m.