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Wilderness in battle for home ice during playoffs

Wilderness forward Jack Forbort (of Duluth) chases the puck into the corner with a Chill player as the referee looks on during the first period of Friday night’s home game against Coulee Region. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 1 / 4
Wilderness defenseman Tristan Rostagno clears the puck away from in front of the net before a Chill player can reach it during the first period of Friday’s home game against Coulee Region. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 2 / 4
Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 3 / 4
Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 4 / 4

For now, the Minnesota Wilderness do not control their home-ice playoff destiny for the first round — but by the time Sunday’s regular-season finale rolls around, they might.

The Wilderness lead third-place Janesville by one point in the Midwest Division standings with one game to play — but the Jets have two games to go, and have a home-and-home series against Coulee Region to play on Friday and Saturday nights.

Two wins over the Chill, which are fighting fourth-placed Springfield for a playoff spot themselves, would earn Janesville second place and a home ice spot outright, placing them three points ahead of the Wilderness with 36 wins.

A Janesville split, however, would make it possible for the Wilderness to claim second place themselves with a win over the Chill on Sunday at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

But don’t talk about home ice too loudly around coach Corey Millen. He’s comfortable come what may.

“I’m really not worried about it (home ice),” Millen said. “This is a team that has performed as well on the road this season as it has at home.”

Statistics bear out Millen’s opinion. At home, the team is 18-9-2, while on the road, they’re 16-9-5, for an overall record of 34-18-7. In the competitive Midwest Division, though, that might not be good enough for home ice.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d like the last line change (which the home team gets),” Millen added. “But I’m not going to get worked up about it.”

Millen said the Wilderness played well against the Chill last weekend in Cloquet, as the team took three out of four points. Friday’s game was a 3-2 win, with newly-acquired Hermantown star Cole Koepke scoring his first goal for the team in the first period, and Brett Heikkila scoring twice in the third period to bring the home team from behind before 633 fans.

Koepke scored again midway through the third period on Saturday to force overtime in a 3-3 regulation game, but the Chill picked up the extra point at 2:42 of overtime and won 4-3 before 643.

Aaron Miller and Tyler Vold also scored for the Wilderness in the game, and Millen had kind words for the former Hawks star, Koepke.

“I like how he plays the game,” Millen said. “He uses his legs well, he fits well into our system, and he provides us with some offensive opportunities and speed.”

But for playoff success, there’s one area of the team’s game that needs to improve: consistency.

“We have to have consistency in our work,” Millen said as his team prepares to defend its Robertson Cup championship. “We have half a dozen holdovers from last year who know what it takes and that helps, but the most important thing is to have a roster of players with the desire to play well and to play to the moment.”

Many of those playoff moments came on the road last season. The Wilderness won four straight road games in the playoff semifinals and finals to claim the title, so the road isn’t frightening in and of itself.

“As long as the effort is there, we can do this,” he said.

Notes: Millen had words of congratulations for former Wilderness goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, who left UMD last week after his sophomore season to sign a professional contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.  “We’re excited for him,” Millen said. “It’s a good thing for our organization to be able to say we can produce players who are capable of NHL contracts. From that perspective, it’s great for him and for us and we wish him good luck.” (Want to know more? Read “Former Wilderness player is moving to the pros” in last week’s Pine Journal or at www.pinejournal.com.)

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