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Wilderness come home, find good and bad against Aberdeen

Minnesota Wilderness forward Tim Nicksic prepares to take a shot at the Aberdeen Wings net in the third period of Saturday night’s home game. Nicksic went on to score in the last seconds of the game, but the Wilderness lost 4-5 at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 1 / 5
Minnesota Wilderness forward Zach Mills checks an Aberdeen player during the first period of Friday night’s home game. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com 2 / 5
Young fans get in on a goal celebration during Friday nights game against the Aberdeen Wings. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com3 / 5
Wilderness D, Eric gotz digs for the puck in the spray of ice behind the net in the first period of Friday nights game against the Aberdeen Wings. Gotz is a former Hermantown player. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com4 / 5
Wilderness forward, Mitchel Walinski is tripped during the second period of the game against Aberdeen. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com5 / 5

Hockey is a game of momentum and swings — and after 11 games, the Minnesota Wilderness have already experienced some of the highs and lows.

After playing their first nine NAHL games of the season on the road, the Wilderness finally played their home opener last Friday night at Northwoods Credit Union arena — and celebrated with an 8-1 thrashing of the Aberdeen Wings. That was a high.

The next night, though, was a low. The Wilderness couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead in the second game of the series and lost 5-4 to the chagrin of coach Tim Madsen.

“We were excited to get home and we obviously showed it on Friday night with a passion to compete,” said Madsen, who replaced Corey Millen as coach earlier this year. “But Saturday was really, really disappointing — and you can quote me on that.”

Duly accomplished. But Madsen sees a silver lining in the team’s 5-6 start — seeing better days ahead.

“I’m proud of this team for about 100 minutes of the 120 we played on the weekend,” he said. “In this league, though, you have to learn how to sweep and be able to do it. Otherwise you’re just in the middle of the standings. That was made clear to the team and I’m certain they will get it.”

Madsen has set a very high bar for his young team.

“With the talent on our team and in our organization, just ‘making it’ isn’t good enough. The players will know that by the end of this week if they don’t know it now. Splits aren’t good enough for our organization. I’m not a guy who likes to play the ‘it’s early’ card but we’re 10 games in and splits are not acceptable. But this is a great group of kids and that’s exciting as a coach.”

Point made. But Madsen does note that it takes time for kids to get systems down pat and that has shown in the team’s play.

“We play our system for two games out of every three and when we don’t play it, we get beat,” he said. “It isn’t a case of not buying in. We will get there. The kids hold each other accountable and they get along well. They seem to like each other. These are good things.”

Against Aberdeen, the difference in the two evenings in terms of “getting it” was pronounced.

On Friday, Tim Nicksic opened the home schedule with a goal after just 84 seconds of play and two minutes later, Logan Stork had the eventual game-winning goal already in the net. Nick Olczyk scored at 10:34 for a 3-0 lead after one period and Alexander Esbjors helped the team to a 4-1 lead after two.

But Charlie Parker, Troy Dobbs, Nicksic again and Pavel Mikhasenok scored third-period goals as the Wilderness pumped home eight goals on just 27 shots before 1,407 fans.

The next night, leading scorer Louis Roehl and Mitchell Walinski gave the Wilderness a 2-0 second-period lead but by the time Michael Zuffante scored their third goal, they were trailing 5-2. The Wings scored four third-period goals in just under eight minutes and held on for the win.

“We knew they would push in the third period but we didn’t push back hard enough,” Madsen said. “We had some adversity in that game and we didn’t react correctly to it, so we lost. We have to put back-to-back 60-minute efforts together in order to be a team people know will contend.”

Madsen said the mistakes his team made are correctable.

“When you make a mistake that isn’t an honest mistake, everyone sees it,” he said. “We need to be better in that area. But we are going to be absolutely fine. We lost and I feel great because these players will come back.”

Madsen points to strong early-season work on special teams as pleasant surprises.

“The more familiar we get with each other, the sooner we’ll go on a nice little run,” he said. “I’m super-confident with this group of kids.”

That group, which includes former local high school stars Luke Dow of Duluth Marshall and East, Nick Altmann and Ryan Peterson of Duluth East and Eric Gotz of Hermantown, will face the Springfield Junior Blues this weekend in Cloquet. The teams played to a hard-fought split at the first of the month.

“Springfield plays hard, they are a good team and well coached,” Madsen said. “But our guys are angry about what happened on the Saturday night (a 4-2 loss after a 3-0 Friday night win). They’re hungry for another crack and I don’t think it will take much to motivate them.”

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