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Wilderness battle to the end

A battle to the end, Wilderness player Adam Kresl tries to get past Ice Dog forward Clay Cross as goaltender Luke Kania watches during game three of the playoffs against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Cloquet. The Wilderness won the game after a double overtime thanks to the persistence of three year Wilderness veteran, Brett Heikkila. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 3
Minnesota Wilderness players exchange hugs following Sunday's season ending 5-2 loss to Fairbanks in the Midwest Division championship game. Dave Harwig/ 2 / 3
Minnesota Wilderness players react following a Fairbanks' empty-net goal that put Sunday's Midwest Division game 5 out of reach, ending their season. Dave Harwig/ 3 / 3

In the end, the Minnesota Wilderness just ran out of time.

After two stirring victories against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the Wilderness fell 5-2 on Sunday in the fifth and deciding game of their Robertson Cup second round series — ending the Wilderness’s title defense and starting the off-season a bit earlier than planned.

“Moral victories don’t get me excited, but the way things shaped up and played out, if you had said we’d get to a fifth game I’d have taken it,” coach Corey Millen said. “We didn’t get any bounces or breaks up there [in Alaska] for the first two games but we came back well.”

On Friday night, Brett Heikkila ended a nearly four-hour long marathon with a goal at 17:40 of the second overtime to give the Wilderness a must-have, 2-1 win in Game Three before a crowd of 1,752 at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

“That game really showed our work ethic,” Millen said. “It showed a lot of character and took a lot of work to win that game.”

Luke Kania stopped 37 of 38 shots he faced in the win, with Alex Toscano also scoring for the Wilderness.

The next night, the Wilderness again faced a must-win situation, and win they did, in a 3-2 regulation triumph before 1,384 fans. Aaron Miller and Toscano staked the Wilderness to a 2-0 first period lead in which they held the Ice Dogs to only one shot on goal, but allowed a pair of second period goals before defenseman Alex Trapp scored the game winner — his first goal of the season — with 3:30 to play in the second period. Kania stopped 18 of 20 shots in goal.

That set up the fifth game — played on Wilderness ice with Fairbanks as the “home” team, getting the last change. The Ice Dogs scored on their first shot on goal and built a 3-0 second period lead before Ryan Bloom and Tyler Vold cut the lead to 3-2 in the third period. The Ice Dogs added a fourth goal and their fifth came into an empty net with the Wilderness enjoying their only power play of the night in the game’s final minute, skating six-on-four.

“In that fifth game we made a couple of errors they took advantage of, but they (Fairbanks) have done that all season,” Millen said. “They got the early lead and put us at a disadvantage. They make you pay for your mistakes, they have guys who make plays under pressure, and they did it to us in game five.”

And so, the Wilderness’ Robertson Cup defense ended on home ice — but Millen was pleased with how far the team came in the last quarter of the season.

“We lost three impact forwards to injury and not a lot of teams can survive that,” Millen said. “We had a lot of young guys and I was impressed with the position we were in at the end.”

And so the team immediately launches into the off-season, with the news the leading scorer Koby Bender of Cloquet was drafted by Muskegon of the USHL in its draft.

The NAHL promotes itself as a destination league, so to see USHL teams draft NAHL players is a bit of a sore point for Millen.

“Obviously you don’t like to lose your players, but really what it comes down to is what’s best for the player,” Millen said. “Sometimes leaving is the best thing for a player, sometimes staying is the best thing for a player. You meet with the player and you talk him through it.”

“He has a high skill level and is very talented,” Millen said of Bender, who passed up his senior year at Cloquet to lead the Wilderness in scoring. Bender, who has committed to play college hockey at UMD, could also play another season of junior hockey since last season was his senior year in high school.

“In our post-season meetings we talked about that," Millen said. "The sky is the limit as far as his talent, but there are things he needs to embrace if he wants to keep moving forward.”

Millen had kind words for Gilling and defenseman Brian Hurley. “They came a long way,” he said. “Some of these kids were playing midgets and high school hockey a year ago so their growth when it comes is going to be bigger. We have six or seven potential guys coming back up front, maybe five on the back end and maybe a goalie. But with the dynamics of players going on, it’s hard to say. You just don’t know.”

But what everyone knows is that the season is over, and nobody’s happy about it.

“We talk about how much fun the playoffs are and what the feeling is after losing,” Millen said. “It drives you to better and work harder. It’s a bad feeling. I think we deserved a better fate with our work but that is the nature of the beast. We want the players to remember how this feels and come back stronger for it.”