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Wilderness start season in challenging division

Minnesota Wilderness's Aaron Myers tries to deflect a shot past Aberdeen goaltender Matt Vernon. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 3
Former Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjack Dylan Johnson tries to get to the puck in front of the Aberdeen net during the Saturday, Sept. 29, Minnesota Wilderness hockey game at Northwoods Arena. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 3
Minnesota Wilderness forward Nick Portz goes after a rebound to score a goal past Aberdeen goaltender Matt Vernon. Portz scored a goal in both weekend games against Aberdeen. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 3

The season is underway for the Minnesota Wilderness, and while the team works the bugs out of its system, they are learning just how tough their division will be this winter.

The Wilderness are 2-3-1 after the four-game NAHL Showcase to start the season and two losses at home last weekend against Aberdeen. The Friday, Sept. 28, game ended in a 4-3 shootout loss, while the Saturday, Sept. 28, game was a 5-4 setback, meaning the team got one point out of four on the weekend.

"We have seen signs of a good team," Wilderness coach and general manager Dave Boitz said. "But we've been inconsistent. We already have had some key guys out and have some guys back on our team from the USHL, so we're shaping up."

The roster moves have made the early season a bit nervy.

"It's awkward the first part of the year," Boitz said. "We're still putting lines together and looking for consistency with guys coming and going."

That said, Boitz is pleased with the team's balance.

"We have guys on every line that can score," he said. "We have had signs of excellent goaltending, and above all we have a group of guys who work hard every day and are committed to winning."

The team has allowed 19 goals in its first six games, but nine of them were against the Wings last weekend.

"We had a rough night Saturday, just some tough goals we allowed, but our young goalie (rookie Kaleb Johnson) has been brilliant," Boitz said.

Johnson is 2-1 with a 2.33 goals-against average, while Aaron Myers of Thief River Falls has scored four goals in the team's first six games. Cloquet's Dylan Johnson scored against Fairbanks at the Showcase and has played in all six games to date.

The Showcase allowed Boitz to see a lot of players and saw the team go 2-2.

"We beat the Lone Star Brahmas 2-1 in a physical, defensive game and we beat Fairbanks 3-1," Boitz said. "We just weren't good in our first game (a 4-1 loss to the Johnstown Tomahawks). They had a couple games. We hadn't, and it really showed."

The team's third Showcase game, a 4-2 loss to the New Jersey Titans, was also tough to take.

"We fell behind, got back in it and were taking it to them but then we had a bad change and that led to a goal and we couldn't come back," Boitz said. "I thought we should have won that game."

Even the Aberdeen series had its moments.

"Friday, we're down 3-1 in the third and came back, then we missed a breakaway, got tripped in overtime and missed a penalty shot and they get a fluke goal and win it," Boitz said. "We've seen flashes of an awfully good team, though."

On the whole, Boitz likes what he has seen.

"We see flashes, and we do have a ways to go in the defensive zone," he said. "The guys are working at it and we can see the difference, the way we defend from the inside out versus being loose in the defensive zone. It's a matter of buy-in."

Even though the Wilderness are three points out of fourth place after six games, Boitz sees plenty of reason for optimism.

"A year ago we were 1-5 at this time," he said. "We could be 5-1 this year or we could be 1-5 again. It's one of those things where if we get a couple of blocked shots and score a breakaway goal we could have five wins. If we just play consistent hockey and get good goaltending we'll be right there."

But then Boitz's competitive side shows through one last time.

"We'd rather be 3-2-1," he said. "We should have won one last weekend and let the New Jersey get away. We should have at least three wins and we don't, but that's the way it is."