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Wilderness fall in heartbreaker

Alexander Esbjors pf the Minnesota Wilderness tries to control a rebound off of Aberdeen goaltender Forbes Ploszaj during Monday's Central Division Championship Game 5. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 2
Minnesota Wilderness forward Zach Mills shoots the puck past Aberdeen defenseman Andy Carroll during Monday's Central Division Championship game 5. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 2

After 70 regular season and playoff games, it all came down to one goal.

Colin Raver's goal at 15:05 of overtime ended the Minnesota Wilderness's Robertson Cup dreams in Game Five of their series with the Aberdeen Wings — a crushing 1-0 loss which denied the home team its dream of competing for the Cup in Duluth this weekend.

"It wasn't in the cards," coach Tim Madsen said. "We emptied the tank but we saw one of the best goaltending performances I've seen in 10 years. We just couldn't get that goal."

Forbes Ploszaj made 43 saves for the Wings while Trevor Micucci stopped 45 of 46 shots in goal for the Wilderness.

Longtime Lumberjacks coach Dave Esse likes to say there are 300-400 plays in a hockey game and sometimes winning and losing narrows down to a single one.

"I think that's really fair," Madsen said. "The Grade-A scoring opportunities were pretty much down the middle but they made Coach Esse's one play and we didn't. They capitalized on the opportunities."

As you might have expected, Game Five was a nerve-fest.

"It was a real tense game and for me as the leader, I had to try to take the pressure off the players," Madsen said. "But as soon as it hit overtime, speaking for myself as a coach, I took a deep breath and realized that if it was meant to be, it's meant to be."

But it wasn't meant to be, and that's hard to take.

"I'm proud of them, how hard they fought," Madsen said. "The fifth game was the first time in the playoffs that I looked into their eyes and saw the pressure they were feeling. They wanted to play in Duluth very badly and I think some of the guys really felt that pressure. How could they not?"

Game Five was high drama set up by a weekend split in Aberdeen. The Wilderness won Game Three by a 4-1 margin that wasn't as close as the score.

The Wilderness built a 4-0 lead on goals by Nick Altmann, Tim Nicksic, Altmann again and Luke Dow.

"Easily our best game of the playoffs," Madsen said. "We ran them out of their own barn."

Luke Kania stopped 30 of 31 shots in goal for the Wilderness.

But the next night, the Wilderness met a desperate Wings team that returned the favor with interest. A 5-2 Aberdeen win sent the series to Cloquet for the fateful fifth game, with Louie Roehl and Jesse Farabee scoring for the Wilderness.

"The hardest thing to do from the NHL on down is end a series on the road, and they were so desperate and determined in Game Four that it overwhelmed us," Madsen said. "I give our guys a lot of credit for being able to park that (emotion of losing) and refocus on Game Five."

But all the players will remember the last game.

"Unfortunately we ran into a team that just wouldn't quit," Madsen said. "We had four power plays in the fifth game, but we went the last three games of the series without a power-play goal. That goose egg hurts."

Still, Madsen counts the season as a success. Game Five was played before a crowd of 1,758 in Cloquet.

"The support from ownership, management and the fans and the town — everyone — I am so impressed with it," he said. "I truly think that this (Cloquet) is a special place."

But this season has been all about learning experiences, and now comes the most painful one of all.

"It should sting," Madsen said "It should sting all summer. It's so new to a lot of these guys, to be that close and not win. I don't know what more you need to be motivated for the whole summer as far as training and being determined and ready for June camp and being ready to build another team. This is the ultimate learning experience, compared to the other ones we have talked about as a team."

Next season looks bright for the team, with only three returning players from a season ago in Game Five's lineup.

"If you had told me we'd get this far last year, I would have taken that any day of the week," Madsen said. "But now the priority is to start building next year's team."

The NAHL draft is in 29 days, with tryout camps in Andover in two weeks, in Colorado in three weeks and in New York in four weeks.

"There's no time to recharge," Madsen said. "Our main tryout camp is in Cloquet June 26-28. But until then there's no time to unwind. You have to work in this league, or you fall behind."