Wilderness begin playoff battle at home
The Minnesota Wilderness had to wait until the last day of the NAHL regular season to learn their first-round playoff opponent — but they'll have home ice advantage starting this weekend against Brookings.
The second-placed Wilderness (32-22-4) and the third-placed Blizzard (30-25-4) split eight games this season with Brookings outscoring them 27-26 in those games.
Each team also went 3-1 on each other's ice this season, which may lead to wondering whether home ice advantage is really such a great thing — until you talk to Wilderness coach Tim Madsen.
"It does feel good," he said. "I'm really proud of the players for getting home ice. Over the course of time, every night you can sleep in your own bed instead of going on the road is a key."
Games One and Two will be played at Northwoods Credit Union Arena on Friday and Saturday nights, April 14-15, with the series shifting to Brookings the following weekend. If a Game Five is necessary, it would be played Monday, April 24, in Cloquet.
If past performance is any indication, that Game Five might just be necessary, even if Madsen has a plan in place to be sure it's not needed.
"These are two teams that are very similar," he said. "We play a similar style, both teams can get up and down the ice and both teams have finishers. Both teams have good goaltending. Every time we've played them it's been even, and it's going to be a big-time challenge for us."
The Blizzard are led in scoring by Western Michigan commit Paul Cotter (28-32-60), Burnsville's Cade Borchart (23-30-53), and Nicholas Cardelli of Wood Dale, Ill. (20-33-53). Their top goaltender is Josh Boyko (25-19-0, 3.00 GPA).
The Wilderness lost 4-1 Friday night at Minot but clinched home ice anyway when Brookings beat Aberdeen 3-2. The next night, though, the Wilderness rebounded for a 3-2 win to close out their regular season while the Blizzard beat the Wings again to take third place from them in the standings by virtue of one more regular season win (30-29).
"We went into the last weekend not knowing who we would play," Madsen said. "We figured that out about 10 p.m. Saturday. We are very familiar with both teams, so to have it settled is a good thing."
Madsen expects a high level of energy from his young players.
"We've seen it all week in practice and it will be there on Friday from top to bottom on the roster," he said. "It's a great time of year, exciting to see all the work you've done throughout the season put to the test in the playoffs."
The Wilderness are a comparatively young team in the NAHL, with only a few returning players from last season, but Madsen expects that to be an advantage. "We have 23 players and not a lot of veterans but we have a lot of excitement," he said. "We have an entire team all shooting for the same goal and that's what you have to have."
To add extra incentive, should the team advance to the Robertson Cup finals, they'll be held at the Heritage Center in Duluth.
"I know they know that, and it's probably in the back of their minds, but I want them to think about Game One against Brookings first. It's a motivating factor in our play but they have to focus on Brookings first," Madsen said.
The team is relatively healthy heading into Friday's opener, but right now it's all about team play.
"Honestly, I think we have a lot of guys who are truly playing their best hockey now," he added. "Our group in general, that's what we focus on. I told them two to three weeks ago they could play as long as they want to play. As long as they're on board, they can go as far as they want."