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Junior hockey: Wilderness teeter over .500 mark

Hermantown's Tyler Watkins shoots the puck past the defense of Brookings Blizzard's James Orr on Saturday, Dec. 15. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 3
Minnesota Wilderness goaltender Ryan Fanti makes 1 of his 22 saves during the Saturday, Dec. 15, game vs. Brookings Blizzard. The Wilderness team wore special holiday jerseys for the series, in which they swept Brookings, winning 3-1 on Friday and 7-2 on Saturday. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 3
Minnesota Wilderness's Aaron Myers shoots the puck during the Friday, Dec. 14, NAHL hockey game vs. Brookings Blizzard at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 3

There has been good news and bad news for the Minnesota Wilderness in the first half of their 2018-19 NAHL schedule.

First, the good news: A two-game home sweep over Brookings last weekend left the Wilderness three games over .500 as the team breaks for the Christmas holiday.

Now, the bad news: If the playoffs started today, the Wilderness wouldn't be in them. Their 15-12-1 record is only good for fifth place in the brutally competitive Central Division, two points behind fourth-place Bismarck and having played one more game.

"We've grown a lot in the first half of the season," Wilderness coach and general manager Dave Boitz said. "We've gotten better defensively and we're seeing that in the results we're getting."

The Blizzard have been a surprise this season for all the wrong reasons, winning only three of their first 29 games and riding a nine-game losing streak into Cloquet.

The home team extended that skid to 11 with two solid wins.

On Friday, Dec. 14, the Wilderness won 3-1 before 902 fans. After a scoreless first period, Ash Altmann got the Wilderness on the board with his first goal of the campaign at the 5:35 mark, followed soon after by Andrew Troy's first of the season for a 2-0 advantage.

After the Blizzard made it 2-1 late in the period, Austin Grzenia scored his fifth goal of the season midway through the third period to clinch the points. Kaleb Johnson stopped 22 of 23 shots in nets for the Wilderness.

The next night was better still, before a crowd of 1,277 which tied the best home attendance mark of the season. The Wilderness raced off to a 4-0 lead in the second period before Brookings got on the board, but Minnesota rode a 47-24 advantage in shots to a 7-2 win.

Nate Horn scored twice and added two assists for the Wilderness. Ondrej Trejbal and Cloquet's Dylan Johnson both chipped in with a goal and two helpers as well. Ryan Fanti stopped 22 of 24 shots on goal for the win.

Johnson has scored nine goals for the Wilderness this season and Boitz was lavish in his praise for the local native.

"He's done everything for us," Boitz said. "We put him out on the power play when we had some injuries, and that unit got better. He kills penalties, pulls his regular shift, works extremely hard and gives us a great effort every night."

Despite their 3-24-1 record, Boitz had kind words for the Blizzard.

"The last game they won was 7-2 at Minot when Minot was in first place," Boitz said. "But they've had a season where maybe they didn't recruit as well as everyone else and you're seeing what happens. They played hard, but it has been a very tough year for them."

Boitz has sent his players home until Dec. 26, when they'll have an evening skate to prepare for a pivotal home series with Austin on Dec. 28-29. The teams also meet New Year's Eve in Cloquet for a rare three-game set against each other.

"The kids can certainly use some rest, especially the first-year high school players," Boitz said. "They've played a full high school season already and then some, and it's only the first half of our season. Playing at this level is hard physically and players need their rest."

But as the second half starts, the Wilderness play ten straight games against divisional opponents and only two games on their entire remaining schedule are against teams outside the Central Division.

As it stands now, the Wilderness are the only NAHL team above the .500 mark that would not qualify for the playoffs, but Boitz isn't concerned.

"I think we're going to have a strong second half," he said. "We've improved throughout and our success is in our own hands since we have mainly division games left."