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Wilderness gunning for playoffs

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With 16 games to go in the regular season, the Minnesota Wilderness hold their NAHL playoff hopes in their own hands.

After last weekend's split with the Janesville Jets, the Wilderness stand in third place in the Central Division — and play all 16 of their remaining games against teams currently behind them in the standings.

"We do control our own destiny," coach Tim Madsen said. "If the players decide they want to reach the goal (of making the playoffs), that's within them to do."

The Jets (28-9-2) came to Cloquet firmly in second place in the Midwest Division behind perennial power Fairbanks. Both games went to shootouts, with each team winning a game and leaving with three points.

"The first thought is that these are good games to play," Madsen said. "We're learning how to play in close games and have success in them. We'll have a lot of those games down the stretch."

On Friday night the Wilderness (22-18-2) ran into a red-hot goaltender. Garrett Nieto stopped 42 of 43 shots in regulation but couldn't stop Luke Dow in the fourth round of a scoreless shootout, giving the Wilderness a needed win: 2-1, before 1,179 fans.

"It was a little frustrating to watch," Madsen said. "I give our guys credit, they just kept going and going. Their coach (Gary Shuchuk) said after the game that they were lucky we didn't beat them 5-1 or 6-1. I said thank you, but we need to not make excuses when we run into a hot goaltender."

The next night, the Jets scored three goals on Ryan Fanti in the first period, and he gave way to Jacob SIbell, the hero of the previous night. That set the stage for a furious Wilderness comeback.

"We trailed 4-1 in the second period," Madsen said. "But our guys have reacted really well to those pressures."

After Isaac Moberg opened the scoring, the Wilderness didn't score again until Colin Baird made it 4-2 late in the second period. The Wilderness then outshot the Jets 18-6 in the third period and got goals from Edward Lindelow and Ash Altmann down the stretch to force another overtime.

This time the Jets won the shootout, but Madsen was full of positives for his team.

"We were more determined around the net," he said. "We didn't stop, just kept coming, and gave the fans an entertaining third period. We were impressed by the effort and the urgency especially in the third period. I think we overwhelmed them a little bit in the third period. They were looking to get out of town and we had something to say about it."

As the regular season enters the stretch run, Madsen is noticing his players' focus beginning to change. "I think it's a playoff mentality," he said. "Watching the guys, their attitude from afar and how they react to all the bad things that can happen in a game. It's all about how you react."

The final stretch of 16 games starts Friday night at home against Brookings, in the first of four straight games against the last-place Blizzard.

"The thing I am telling the players every day is that Brookings is much better than their record," Madsen said. "They have some good players but had some major goaltending issues early in the season and they have been playing catch up ever since."

Eight of the Wilderness' last 16 games are against Brookings, with four against fifth-place Minot and four against fourth-place Bismarck. But only 18 points separates first from last in the ultra-competitive Central Division, and only 10 points separate the third-place Wilderness from the sixth-place Blizzard.

"These are huge points," Madsen said. "We could still win the regular season division championship, we could still get home ice or we could still miss the playoffs entirely. But on the positive side, (first place) Aberdeen has 13 losses, four to us. (Second-place) Austin has 13 losses, five to us. We've just got to get there."