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Wilderness down Jets in first round of playoffs, face Ice Dogs next

Wilderness forward Brett Heikkila tries to score through the legs of Jets defenseman Jeff Alderfer (10) as Heikkila is being held by Jack Gates (72). Jets goalie Jack Lafontaine made the save during an action-packed Game Four of the NAHL divisional playoff series between the Wilderness and the Janesville Jets in Cloquet Saturday night. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 5
Wilderness forward Ryan Bloom celebrates his game-winning overtime goal during Game Four of the playoff series between the Wilderness and the Janesville Jets in Cloquet Saturday night. Jamie Lund/ 2 / 5
Cloquet senior Koby Bender catches his balance after checking a Jets player into the players box as Wilderness teammate Connor Bucsis reaches for the puck in Game Four of the playoffs in Cloquet Saturday night. Jamie Lund/ 3 / 5
Alex Toscano celebrates in the middle of his team mates after the Minnesota Wilderness hockey team won game 4 of the playoff series in over time against the Janesville Jets. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com4 / 5
Jamie Lund/ 5 / 5

After Game One of their first-round NAHL playoff series against the Janesville Jets, the Minnesota Wilderness could have been excused for looking a bit white around the gills.

But after Game Four, the situation had reversed completely — to the point where the Wilderness are through to the second round after knocking the Jets out of the playoffs for the second season in a row.

The Wilderness won twice at Northwoods Credit Union Arena last weekend — in a pair of overtime thrillers that have the team feeling good as it heads to the next round against Midwest Division champion Fairbanks.

Game Three went to double overtime before Isak Bergland’s goal at 13:28 gave the Wilderness a 2-1 win before 1,222 fans. Alex Toscano had tied the game midway through the second period but the teams fought through a scoreless first period as well as a scoreless first overtime before the game winner.

Bergland’s winner came after the Wilderness had killed off a Jets power play in the second overtime.

“I thought we played well enough to win on Friday for sure,” Wilderness coach Corey Millen said. “We pretty heavily outshot and out-chanced them, but we had to score, and we’ve had trouble scoring goals at times.”

The Wilderness outshot the Jets 43-24 for the game including 27-18 in regulation time, 16-6 in overtime and 6-1 in the second overtime session where the winner was scored. Luke Kania got the win in goal, stopping 23 of 24 shots he faced.  

On Saturday night, the Wilderness rode a pair of goals from Ryan Bloom to a 3-2 overtime win before 1,315 fans, eliminating the Jets three games to one.

This game was also a tough one, with the Jets’ Adrian Holesinsky — who was involved in five of Janesville’s nine goals in the series — beating Kania just 53 seconds into the contest.

“We figured we would get some pushback from them (Janesville) because this was a game they had to have,” Millen said. “But we were really hoping they wouldn’t score in the first minute.”

Bloom’s first goal at 16:59 of the first period leveled the score before Peter Bates restored the Janesville lead midway through the second period. Aaron Miller’s first goal of the playoffs 57 seconds after Bates’ goal made it 2-2, and Bloom won the game and the series at 13:45 of overtime.

“We needed a couple of really strong efforts to get through the series and advance, and we got them,” Millen said. “So we’re happy to advance.”

They next face the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who rolled to the best record in the NAHL (49-8-3) and outpaced the Wilderness by 25 points in the standings.

“They’re good,” Millen said of the division champions. “We’re going to have to be better than we were against Janesville. They haven’t really had much adversity this season, so hopefully we can give them a little.”

Three straight playoff wins, though, will give a team confidence and Millen says his team is quietly ready.

“We’ll be prepared and so will they (Fairbanks),” he said. “It’s just a matter of who does the small things well and executes well enough to win.”

Due to the distance between the cities, the series is known as a “swing series.” Games One and Two will be played at the Big Dipper Arena in Fairbanks Friday and Saturday (April 29-30) nights. If the Wilderness win either or both of the first two games, Game Three would be in Fairbanks on Sunday. If the Ice Dogs win the first two games, the series would shift to Cloquet for Game Three on May 6 and any remaining games on May 7-8.