Wilderness win decisively in Game Five, play Aberdeen in Cloquet this weekend

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When it mattered the most, the Minnesota Wilderness had no passengers.

Facing a deciding Game Five in their first round NAHL playoff series against Brookings on Monday night, the Wilderness won going away — a 6-3 win that punched their ticket to the second round of the Robertson Cup playoffs.

"That win makes me very proud," coach Tim Madsen said. "It shows that we wanted to keep playing, shows we have leadership and kids that care. I've told the players they can play as long as they want to play this season and they played Monday like they wanted to make a run."

The Wilderness came from behind twice in the game. Zach Mills and Tyler Vold erased an early 1-0 Brookings lead in the first period, then Brandon Kruse put the visitors ahead 3-2 at 1:29 of the second period.

Enter Mills, who scored his second goal of the game at 8:40 to get the Wilderness tied at 3-3. Hermantown's Eric Gotz made it 4-3 with 1:31 left in the session and the Wilderness never looked back. Duluth East's Ash Altmann scored for a 5-3 advantage in the third before Jesse Farabee's goal at 9:03 finally decided the issue.

"That's why you work so hard to get home ice advantage, for games like that," Madsen said. "You can sleep in your own bed and get the last change. There are advantages and the crowd (1,003) on Monday night gave us a boost."

The Wilderness reclaimed home ice advantage in the series with a 4-2 win last Friday night in Brookings. Third-period goals by Michael Zuffante and Tim Nicksic snapped a 2-2 tie on the way to the win. Mills and Gunnar Goodmanson also scored for the Wilderness, which got 28 saves from Luke Kania in goal.

The next night, though, the Blizzard won 4-1 in what was an elimination game for them. Goodmanson's goal with 1:56 left in the third period was the only tally of the night for the Wilderness, with Brookings picking up two empty-net goals to pad the final score and set up Monday night's heroics.

"I thought from our standpoint we were definitely better in game three," Madsen said. "We played a complete game in that game, and when we got the lead late we did responsible things with the puck, chipping in, getting the puck deep, winning faceoffs, blocking shots. But I didn't think we were sharp in game four. Thankfully for us, we had another opportunity."

The Wilderness will keep their home ice advantage for the second round, as fourth-place Aberdeen stunned division champion Minot in four games in the first round. The schedule is the same as for round one — the first two games are Friday and Saturday night in Cloquet with games three and four scheduled for next weekend in Aberdeen. If a Game Five is necessary it will be played Monday, May 8, in Cloquet.

The Wings finished 29-24-3 in the regular season and missed being the Wilderness's first-round playoff opponent by virtue of winning one fewer game than Brookings. Madsen knows his team has its hands full.

"Their team has been really good the second half of the year" he said. "Our division is the most competitive in the league from top to bottom. They are good and we know they are good — Minot knew that too but couldn't beat them. Your team has to come together and do the right things necessary to win. We both did it. So it's time to see who gets to go to the big dance."

Madsen points to the fourth game in Aberdeen as a learning experience.

"You can have a learning experience in the playoffs and get away with it," he said, "but our chances for those things are getting smaller and smaller. I do think we can learn in the playoffs, you learn every single day. We learned a valuable lesson."

With only four returning players from a year ago, tasting playoff success is very important, especially against a team like Aberdeen.

"They have two lines who can really scoot and are offensive, and two lines of hard-working two-way players," Madsen said. "Their coach is systematic, they will try to trap us and slow us down in the neutral zone and try to outnumber us in the defensive zone, something you do against a team built like we are. "

And Madsen adds that his team has total buy-in.

"The kids got the 'passenger' message," he said. "As for our effort, everyone was on point. They have won the reward for it and know why that buy-in is important. It's like drawing up a drill in practice. You have to explain why and what it will benefit, otherwise it's just a drill. We have smart kids in that locker room and they understand."