Wilderness seek home ice advantage in playoffs

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IF YOU GO

This weekend the Minnesota Wilderness host the Janesville Jets Friday and Saturday for the last regular home game series of the 2016-2017 season. Friday is EMS Night: all emergency medical service employees receive free admission with some form of identification (or in uniform). Saturday is Billet Family Appreciation night. Games start at 7:05 p.m. both nights.

JUNIOR HOCKEY

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For the Minnesota Wilderness, getting into the North American Hockey League playoffs is the main thing.

That goal was accomplished last weekend with a home split against Bismarck. The team's first goal — a division championship — is not possible, but first-round home ice still is, and that can be gained this weekend.

The Wilderness conclude the home portion of their 60-game schedule with a pair of contests against Midwest Division-leading Janesville this weekend at Northwoods Credit Union Arena, and coach Tim Madsen says his team is rounding into shape nicely as the playoffs near.

"The first thing was getting [into the playoffs]," Madsen said. "That was an expectation with our organization. The players accomplished that and we're proud of them. Now we need home ice and the players are ready to earn it."

The Wilderness beat Bismarck 3-2 Friday night before a crowd of 2,022 and fell 4-1 Saturday, but made the playoffs in the process.

"We played Bismarck and Aberdeen and they were both desperate teams," Madsen said. "They are still battling for the playoffs and they gave us all they had. It's a tough schedule down the stretch and I love that. Our players will be battle tested before playoff time."

After this weekend's series, the Wilderness make the eight-hour bus ride to Minot for a season-ending series with the Central Division champion Minotauros with pride — and perhaps a playoff message — on the line.

Madsen is pleased with how the team has rounded into shape.

"I give the kids credit," he said. "We have a whole new coaching staff and only four players back from last year. We do things differently, we have a different style of play and a different culture. It took time to get things going the way we wanted them to go. We're in a great spot now (the Wilderness are 30-20-4). It's hard to get 30 wins in this league."

Madsen says the team needs to find its playoff mindset over the next two weekends.

"There will be adversity," he said. "You have to come from behind, you might have a goal called off. I tell the guys all the time that mistakes happen in hockey, bad things will happen. It's how you react that says everything about your team."

The coach gave props to his players for the distance they have come in terms of development.

"We had such problems early on holding leads and reacting the right way," Madsen said. "We were a lot better in the second half of the season — more confident."

Madsen says his players have found a consistency to their game that is vital in the playoffs.

"I tell the guys that consistency comes from commitment," he said. "When we commit to playing as a team we are OK. We have skill and when we do play as a team that leads to consistency. We've gone from playing as individuals to playing as a team."

The Wilderness are reasonably healthy heading into the last two weeks which is also vital.

"As healthy as we can expect to be, knock on wood," he said. "There are bumps and bruises but you need to be healthy, and maybe a little lucky, to make a deep playoff run."

Madsen also had praise for the home fans, who he said made a big difference last Friday.

"Fan support is very important," he said. "Some people say the players should be able to motivate themselves and that's partially true, but when we have had big crowds the players have fed off it. Friday night, the crowd was our seventh man. When the crowd gets behind you, you get that extra energy. I'm hoping for a good crowd this weekend to help us get home ice, but we should be highly motivated come Friday."