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Home losses mean Wilderness must win on the road

For the Minnesota Wilderness, the NAHL playoffs can already be summed up in clich?s. If the clich? is indeed true about the best teams being able to overcome adversity to win, the Wilderness have already bit off a king-size piece as potential proof.

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Minnesota Wilderness forward Darian Romanko is pushed into the net by Jackson Charlesworth and on top of Coulee Region goalie Adam Carlson during the second period of the NAHL playoff game Friday night. The Wilderness lost both games this past weekend, leading to a “must win” scenario this coming weekend or they won’t advance in the playoffs. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com

For the Minnesota Wilderness, the NAHL playoffs can already be summed up in clichés.

If the cliché is indeed true about the best teams being able to overcome adversity to win, the Wilderness have already bit off a king-size piece as potential proof.

After finishing 19 points ahead of the Coulee Region Chill in the regular season standings, the Wilderness were shocked - twice - at home by the Midwest Division’s third-place team in the first two games of their best-of-five Robertson Cup first-round playoff series.

The double setback means the Wilderness must now run the table and win Friday and Saturday on the road and again Monday night at home to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

“We gave them belief,” Wilderness Coach Corey Millen said. “We didn’t play particularly well on Friday night and that also affected our Saturday.”

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On Friday, a crowd of 1,877 saw defenseman Joe Rutkowski - who had gone scoreless in 47 regular season games for the Chill - score the eventual game winner in the third period as Coulee Region won Game One 4-2.

The Wilderness never led in the contest, with a first-period goal by Nik Lehtimaki and a second-period goal by Aaron Miller canceling out markers by the Chill’s leading scorer Adam Lovick and defenseman Jackson Charlesworth.

“The effort just wasn’t there, the commitment just wasn’t there,” Millen said of his team. “[Coulee Region] got a good game from their goaltender and they got the momentum.”

The Wilderness held Coulee Region to 21 shots on goal despite having to play with only five defensemen due to suspensions from the regular-season ending series between the teams, which resulted in nearly 250 penalty minutes on the weekend.

However, goaltender Adam Carlson stopped 22 of the 24 Wilderness shots he faced to earn the win for his team.

The next night, a crowd of 1,457 saw a game the Wilderness dominated - but lost, 3-1, thanks to another fine effort from Carlson in the Chill’s goal.

“We were better on Saturday night but the thing about [Coulee Region] is that when their goaltender plays well they are a very hard team to beat, and Carlson was very good for them.”

The Wilderness outshot the Chill 36-18 for the game but managed just a single goal from Ian Mansfield in the second period to tie the game at 1-1. The Wilderness have not led so far in the series.

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“The issue is, if you look at our last six to eight weeks, when we don’t score very much we don’t win very much,” Millen said. “We’ve put ourselves into some situations where we hold the stick too tight, our opponent gets a goal and suddenly we’re in trouble.”

And now, the Wilderness are definitely in trouble. One more slip and the team that finished in a tie for fourth place in the 24-team league’s overall regular season standings will be eliminated from the playoffs.

“All the clichés apply,” Millen said. “We have to take it one play at a time, one shift at a time, one period at a time, one game at a time.”

Positively, the Wilderness are 4-0 against the Chill on the road this season, including a two-game sweep at Green Island Ice Arena just two weekends ago, including an 8-1 win April 3 that Millen said was an example of how the team is capable of playing when it’s relaxed and scoring.

“We’ve done well there,” Millen said of the Chill’s rink. “We need to do well there. The first goal is very big and if we get it, that will be a huge help.”

Millen would like to see the players settle down and play the type of game that earned them 84 regular season points.

“We’re the better team. We know we’re the better team, but we have to prove it,” Millen said. “We haven’t proven it in the first two games.”

And, if the Wilderness can come back and win the series, they’ll add a third cliché to their litany.

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“Just win, baby.”

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