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Wilderness in playoff hunt

Minnesota Wilderness' Gino Lucia (17) fires a shot for a goal against the Bismarck Bobcats at Northwoods Arena. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal1 / 2
Minnesota Wilderness' Gino Lucia celebrates a goal with his teammates after scoring against the Bismarck Bobcats on Friday, March 2, at the Northwoods Arena. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal2 / 2

The Minnesota Wilderness took a big step toward securing a North American Hockey League playoff position in recent weeks, with last weekend's home split against Bismarck putting the team in third place, three points ahead of the Bobcats with 10 games to play.

The Wilderness (26-19-2) put together one of their best all-around games of the season in a 4-0 win on Friday, March 2, holding the Bobcats to 21 shots on goal.

"We played really well on Friday night," coach Tim Madsen said. "We defended well. We rolled our lines and everyone went about their business."

C.J. Regula scored twice for the Wilderness, who got single goals from Gino Lucia and Edward Lindelow to back up a shutout performance by Jacob Sibell in goal.

The next night wasn't so good.

"We didn't show up for the first period," Madsen said. "We can't take a period off. The players are aware of the standings, and should have been aware that Bismarck would be playing for their (playoff) lives. We were nowhere to be found."

The Bobcats scored three goals on 13 shots in the first period before Regula scored the team's only goal in the second period as part of a 4-1 loss.

"It was disappointing considering where we had been playing," Madsen said. "To lay an egg for a period like that wasn't good."

The Wilderness had just finished a remarkable stretch in which they played five shootout games in a row, and seven out of eight.

"I won't say I mind that," Madsen said. "It toughens the players up and shows them that they can win close games."

One game that might be a pivotal point in the Wilderness' season was a 5-4 win over Brookings, in a shootout, on Feb. 16. The Wilderness trailed 4-1 after two periods, but scored three goals in the third period and then won in a shootout.

"They know they can do it and they know they can come from behind," Madsen said. "The lesson we need to learn is not to put ourselves in the position where we have to rally, but obviously, we'd rather win those games. That was the game where we came together, where the players started to believe."

The Wilderness play their final 10 games against the three teams behind them in the Central Division standings: Minot, Bismarck and Brookings. They really do control their own destiny.

"We're three points behind Austin for home ice, but mathematically, we could still finish first or sixth," Madsen said. "We have to be ready every night."

This weekend starts a stretch where the team will play its last six road games of the regular season consecutively, starting with a pair in Minot on Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10, against the fifth-place Minotauros (21-22-4).

"It'll be as tough as we want to make it," Madsen said. "Everything's meaningful now. It's good to be on the road this time of year. There aren't any girlfriends, any distractions, any parents in the players' ears. It's just us and we're excited about that."

In addition, the Wilderness have a new arrival for the stretch: Madsen and his wife welcomed their first child, Jack, into the world last week.

"We were in Brookings and there was a bad storm there," Madsen said. "So I coached the Friday game and left Saturday, with the assistants taking the bench for me. That was good because the storm stuck the team in Brookings for an extra day and Jack was born less than 48 hours later."

In slightly older roster additions, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton defenseman Ryan Nelson played in both games last weekend and will make the trip to Minot. He isn't eligible for the playoffs, but teammate Landon Langenbrunner, who will join the team this weekend, is eligible to play for the rest of the season.