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Wilderness learn from mid-season slump

Minnesota Wilderness forward Luke Dow celebrates his goal in the second period of Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Magicians. The Wilderness lost 3-2 in overtime at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 3
Wilderness defenseman Joe Vingi battles a Minnesota Magician player to reach the puck first during the matchup between the teams Thursday night. Jamie Lund/ 2 / 3
Wilderness forward Michael Zuffante looks for an opportunity to pass as he carries the puck into the Magicians end during the third period of Thursday night’s matchup at the Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Jamie Lund/ 3 / 3

Adversity at mid-season is always better for a hockey team than adversity at the end of the season, and nobody knows that better than Minnesota Wilderness coach Tim Madsen.

A four-game losing streak — which saw his team lose leads in all four contests — has led to uncomfortable lessons being learned by the Wilderness (11-10-2, third place Central Division).

“I feel pretty good right now,” Madsen said about his team this week. “They have really learned their lesson. All four of those games were tied going into the third period and we didn’t get it done. We did a great job protecting leads last weekend so hopefully that is a step in the right direction.”

Since then, the team has won three of four games including a road sweep of the Coulee Region Chill last weekend by 3-2 and 5-2 scores.

On Friday night, the Wilderness scored twice in the last 4:46 of regulation to erase a 2-0 deficit and force overtime. Tyler Vold and Dylan Mills scored 2:45 apart to make it 2-2 before Michael Zuffante’s goal 1:44 into overtime capped a 50-shot night for the visitors.

“The same thing had been happening the other way to us,” Madsen said. “It was good to see the players rebound like that.”

The next night, the Wilderness blistered Coulee goaltender Scott Todd with 46 more shots on target in a 5-2 win. This time, the Wilderness lost 1-0 and 2-1 leads — again being tied going into the third period — before scoring three times in the last session to win going away.

Former Duluth Marshall and East star Luke Dow opened the scoring for the Wilderness, who also got two goals apiece from Dylan Mills and Zach Mills for the final margin of 5-2.

The Wilderness have scored 79 goals in their 23 games to date, second-most in their division and fifth-most in the 24-team league.

“We’ve been successful because we’ve scored a lot of goals,” Madsen said. “We have a top-five power play as well. That being said, we do play an offensive brand of hockey, but there is a time and a place to manage the puck and manage the game. Part of our learning process has been knowing when to chip in instead of trying to beat a man on-on-one. We’re getting better at that.”

The team is also getting better goaltending from Luke Kania (8-5-1, 2.64) and Trevor Micucci (3-4-1, 3.25).

“During the losing streak, our goaltending was average and they knew it,” Madsen said. “But the last couple of weeks it has been spectacular, including our loss in that stretch (an overtime loss to the Minnesota Magicians last Thursday).”

Madsen says the process of building the team over a 60-game regular season is a difficult process but his players are handing it well.

“The word we use is attitude,” he said. “The mentality we have is that we’re in it together. If the goaltender is struggling, the forwards and defense have to bail him out, and it’s returned in kind. We had a stretch where we know we can be better and we are coming out of that.”

The team is at home over Thanksgiving weekend with a weekend series against the Bismarck Bobcats (11-8-1), the team immediately behind the Wilderness in the division standings. Bismarck has three games in hand on the Wilderness, who have played the most games of any team in their division.

Bismarck features former Duluth Marshall defenseman Jordan Fralich and former East standout Ash Altmann.

“It’s good to be home over Thanksgiving weekend,” Madsen said. “It’s good for the guys to spend the holidays with their billet families and for the local kids to be at home. Family time is important, to spend time with the people who take care of you.”

The upcoming schedule is kind to the Wilderness, who have six of their next eight games at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Madsen said. “We have 11 games in 23 days this month so it’s a tough stretch, but we can make up ground on home ice. We are in a good spot right now, but it’s a very tight division so we can separate ourselves a bit.”

And in so doing, the Wilderness hope to reach the halfway point of the league schedule having learned more about themselves than they knew at the start.

“The learning process is on schedule,” Madsen said. “Our losing streak was a period of adversity I’d much rather hav