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Wilderness vault into first place

You could excuse Minnesota Wilderness forward Darian Romanko for saying the Coulee Region Chill are his favorite NAHL opponents.

Romanko scored the game-winning goal in all three games of a rare tripleheader between the teams last week as the Wilderness vaulted into first place in the league’s Midwest Division.

At one point last month, the Wilderness had five games in hand. With the schedule now evened up, the team passed the Chill and defending league champion Fairbanks and into the division’s top spot at 24-9-4 overall.

“Those were big games,” Millen said. “We were playing a division opponent, we were right with them in the standings at the time and they got one point out of six. We got six points out of six so there’s some room between us now.”

The fun started with a 6-4 Wilderness win on Jan. 8 before 537 fans at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

After taking a 2-0 lead, the Wilderness coughed up three second-period goals to ender the third down 3-2. But from there, the home team scored four times, including an empty-net goal by Nick Lehtimaki, to roar to the win. Two of the third-period goals came on the power play, including the game-winner by Romanko at 13:29 of the session. Lehtimaki scored twice in the period and team scoring leader Aaron Miller of Superior tallied a goal and two assists. Ryan Anderson earned the win in goal.

Two nights later in LaCrosse, the Wilderness took leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before Romanko was again the hero with a goal at 10:19 of the third period in a 3-2 win. Tyler Cline was in on all three Wilderness goals with a goal and two helpers to back Anderson’s 27-save performance in goal.

The next night, playing for the third time in four nights, the teams needed overtime in LaCrosse to settle the issue — or rather, they needed Romanko.

Two minutes into the extra session, Romanko beat Chill goaltender Adam Carlson to earn his team the win. The Wilderness also got two goals from former Duluth East standout Alex Toscano and another goal from Cline. Anderson made 22 stops in goal for the win.

The triple victory was important for more reasons than the obvious.

“They (Coulee Region) are a quality team, and they’re going to be a team we have to battle,” Millen said. “Who knows where that will go, there could be playoff implications, but it’s good to put some space between us. It’s also good psychologically.”

The wins were still better due to Carlson’s season-long excellence in the Coulee Region goal. Entering the weekend, he was tied for second in the league with 17 wins and a goals-against average just over 2.00 — and he’s still stuck on 17 wins, thanks to the Wilderness.

“It’s good to maybe get in their heads a little,” Millen said. “Their goalie has been such a big part of their success, so it’s nice to get three wins against him.”

The trifecta of victories has the Wilderness flying high heading into the team’s final home game of the season against the Minnesota Magicians on Friday night. The teams play four more times this season after Friday — all in Richfield.

“Sometimes the schedule doesn’t always make a lot of sense,” Millen said. “We’re going to have to try to take advantage when we have them at home.”

Millen says that with the stretch run of the regular season coming up, mental toughness is going to be important.

“We talk about playing smart,” he said. “We’ll need to now. We’ve got to find a way to be smarter and to win the games down the stretch.”

Key to any future success will be staying out of the penalty box. The Wilderness are the fifth-most penalized team in the 24-team NAHL, and that doesn’t sit well with the coach, who didn’t take many penalties when he played.

“We understand why some of the teams in the league are penalized a lot, because they’re built to be hard and physical,” he said. “We’re not built that way. We’ve had some incidents with fighting and stuff but in those cases I thought we were in situations where we had no choice. That’s led to some suspensions and a need to play smarter to avoid those situations.”

That has made the season challenging.

“We’ve had nights when we couldn’t put 20 guys on the ice, nights where we either had five defensemen or guys who didn’t know the system. It has been the most challenging coaching experience I’ve ever had.”

Still, there’s reason to hope for a strong stretch run from the team.

“We’ve been playing well as a team and keeping shots down from opponents,” Millen said. “When we play our systems well we are organized and we’re difficult to play against. Right now it’s good to be in first place but there’s lots of hockey still to play.”