Junior hockey: Last-place Brookings sweeps Wilderness
Since Christmas, the Minnesota Wilderness have found a way to right their ship and put themselves back in the NAHL Central Division playoff race.
However, their ship needed a little repair work after a pair of surprise setbacks against last-place Brookings last weekend at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.
The Blizzard had won only five of 36 games coming into the weekend, but left Cloquet with all four points thanks to a 5-4 overtime win Friday, Jan. 18, and a 2-1 win Saturday, Jan. 19.
"It's hard to say if we looked past them," coach Dave Boitz said. "We probably should have won on Friday and we let it get away, and we couldn't score on Saturday."
The flu has been an issue in the team over the last week or so, but Boitz wasn't about to make excuses.
"They did catch us at a good time, since we were banged up a little bit, but everyone goes through that," Boitz said. "Obviously, Brookings is better than their record. They had lots of injuries early on and they've worked really hard to build a competitive roster."
Brookings is coached by former Minnesota North Star and NHL player Moe Mantha.
On Friday, the Wilderness spotted the Blizzard the first two goals before roaring back on tallies by Oula Kuure, Jack Johnson and Isaac Kobenia for a 3-2 lead. Luke Dow made it 4-3 Wilderness late in the second, but the home team couldn't hold the lead, falling at 3:46 of overtime. Kaleb Johnson stopped 30 of 35 shots in goal for the Wilderness.
Saturday night, Brookings goaltender Jack Caruso stopped 25 of 26 Wilderness shots in a 2-1 win. Blake Holmes scored a power play goal with 1:21 remaining in the third period for the only Wilderness goal of the night.
It was a disappointing weekend, and with fifth-place Bismarck coming to town for two games this weekend, Boitz knows it's a big series.
"It's really big," he said. "And then we play they again in a few weeks out there. Both teams are a little beat up and we struggled last weekend. They (Bismarck) have a lot of talent and this is supposed to be their year. They aren't happy with where they are in the standings."
The Wilderness have 42 points in the standings, three more than the Bobcats, who have played one fewer game.
"We played very well after Christmas, going 5-2 and we could have been 7-0," he said. "Last weekend didn't help, but Bismarck and Austin both got swept, so we're holding our own. We had a tough task coming out of Christmas, but the kids got themselves back in the playoff picture."
One area of difficulty has been the third period, which was a strength at the start of the year.
"It's been a struggle holding leads," Boitz said. "We had 5-1 and 5-2 leads against Austin and they came back on us and we were ahead in the third period at home last weekend. We were winning all the third periods earlier and the second period was the tough one for us. So, that's what we're working on right now.
"Getting a big lead is great, but not if you don't hold onto it."