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Epic: Battle for Robby Cup was something special

Tyler Hart (10) attempts to knock Jacob Kullberg of Austin out of position in front of the Wilderness net in the second period of the championship game for the Robertson Cup. Teammates Billy Excell (16) and goalie Brock Kautz watch the play. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 6
MVP goalie Brock Kautz hoists the Robertson Cup over his head as he skates it over to his ecstatic teammates during the celebration after a tough win against the Austin Bruins Saturday night in the NAHL championship game. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com2 / 6
A referee breaks up a scuffle between Minnesota Wilderness forward Tyler Cline and some Austin Bruins players during the Robertson Cup championship game in front of a sold-out crowd in Austin, Minn., last weekend. Jamie Lund/ 3 / 6
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The North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup Finals were supposed to be a best-of-three affair between the Minnesota Wilderness and Austin Bruins. And, when they were done, the equivalent of three games had been played.

But the “three games” were crammed into two nights, and when the games were done, the Wilderness had claimed “The Robby” for the first time in team history with a two-game sweep of the Bruins — including a 2-1 win in the longest game in NAHL history on Friday night.

“It really feels unbelievable,” said Wilderness forward Billy Exell of Thunder Bay, who ended Game One with a shot from the slot after 133:03 of game time — over six and a half periods of hockey. “I’ve never scored a bigger goal. It hasn’t really hit me yet that every team in the league is wishing to be us right now. It’s a great feeling.”

Friday’s quadruple-overtime win was coupled with a 4-0 whitewash on Saturday to bring the Cup to a Minnesota-based team for the first time in the trophy’s 40-year history.

“It’s been kind of crazy, where we were and what we accomplished in six weeks,” Wilderness Coach Corey Millen said. “The whole feat is quite an accomplishment.”

Was it ever.

The Wilderness won 10 straight playoff games to claim the Cup, including seven in a row on the road — and further including the last four games in the semis and finals all away from Northwoods Credit Union Arena. It was a magnificent achievement.

“I think being able to do that and to win the amount of games we did on the road was pretty special,” said Wilderness goaltender and Finals MVP Brock Kautz. “It was a team effort. We played well every game and it was incredible to have it end the way it did.”

But Game One was amazing.

Before a crowd of 1,470, former Duluth East star Alex Toscano scored the first goal of the finals at 16:31 of the first period, only to see Austin’s J.C. Maclean tie the game with 4:30 left in the third period, forcing overtime.

And another overtime. And a third. And finally, a fourth.

“The atmosphere was that nobody in the room wanted to be the guy who would make the mistake that cost us the game,” Exell said. “We knew how important the first game would be so everyone was trying to keep each other up. You’re exhausted, but we were rolling all our lines and everyone was playing and giving each other something to work for.”

Finally, before the fourth overtime, Millen gave a short speech — rare enough for him.

“Coach came in before the last period and said the game needed a hero and wanted to know who it would be,” Exell said. “Everyone wanted to be the hero.”

That hero turned out to be Exell. Well into the fourth overtime period, the forward picked up a loose puck in front of the crease in the middle of a triangle of players including both Austin defensemen and goaltender Evan Smith. Exell shot, and didn’t even see the puck beat the goaltender.

“I saw their D coming back exhausted, I saw the puck laying there and gave it all I had,” Exell said. “I just saw it in the net.”

The goal set off momentary mayhem on the Wilderness bench, but with the first game won, Millen had other concerns.

“I couldn’t wait to get the players out of the building,” he said. “I wanted them fed, hydrated, and rested.”

But in the meantime, the coach was left to remark on a great moment from Exell and great goaltending by Kautz, who made 47 saves.

“Brock was monumental,” Millen said. “He played phenomenal, seemed confident and calm through all the tough times, and was seeing the puck. Billy is a great skater, probably the fastest guy in the league, but at that point in the game (when he scored) he had a freshness about him. Billy got it done.”

“We were playing pretty well and I knew if I could do my job the team could do the rest,” Kautz said. “I made the saves I could make and relied on the team to do the rest.”

Buoyed by the emotional win, the Wilderness had one more win to get — and it came the next night before a crowd of 2,000 in a 4-0 win to clinch the championship.

It wasn’t as easy as the score. The teams battled through another scoreless first period before Ian Mansfield got the Wilderness on the board at 15:52 of the second period to break the scoreless tie.

“I thought if we could score the first goal they (Austin) would be tired and it would be a big hill to climb emotionally,” Millen said. “Goals were still at a premium and that hurt them.”

The Bruins hurt worse when Brett Heikkila scored 2:07 later to give the Wilderness a 2-0 lead after two periods, but Millen said he didn’t feel secure until Heikkila’s second goal of the game at 16:24 of the third period made it 3-0.

“I never felt ‘super-happy’ until then,” Millen said. “I think the boys were tired but focused. I truly believed we were the better team and the players believed it too. We out-chanced them.”

Nick Lehtimaki hit an empty net with 1:44 to play in the game to seal the championship, and moments later the Wilderness were celebrating the climax of a remarkable run.

The Wilderness didn’t get a power play for the entire finals weekend, but went the final 340:14 of their season — dating back to the second period of Game Three in the Fairbanks second-round series — without ever trailing in a game.

“I was a little tired but I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy,” Kautz said of his 26-save performance. “I tried to keep it simple and I knew if I left a rebound the D would clear it. The guys did a great job.”

The end result was very impressive, especially given how the playoffs started. Two lackluster losses to Coulee Region in the first round had the team teetering on the brink of elimination and their coach wondering if the team really wanted to be in the playoffs.

“The first game of the playoffs might have been our worst game of the year,” Millen said. “We didn’t look interested in playing anymore. We had some mental disconnect, it was a long season, guys were tired and we weren’t clicking on all cylinders. Fighting our way back (against Coulee Region) spurred some interest and excitement.”

And that in turn started a prairie fire.

“We got some belief and after the first game against Fairbanks it snowballed,” Millen said. “It gathered speed and it was really something special.”

“After the first two against Coulee, we were asked if we wanted to keep playing and nobody wanted the season to be over,” Exell said. “Everyone bought in and we knew we could go on a run. We weren’t ready to be done. It didn’t matter where we were playing. Our fans came with us.”

Kautz agreed.

“The third game of the Coulee series did it,” he said. “They knew if they won they’d move on, and I made a couple of big saves and the guys fed off that and did a great job of building that momentum.”

That momentum built to the point where it was difficult to describe, but Millen found a word.

“Epic,” he said. “If you look back on it, that’s a good word. It was a special feeling and a special run. It was really kind of incredible.”