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Wilderness are hot, at just the right time

The Minnesota Wilderness continued their streak of red-hot play by taking the first two games of their Midwest Division NAHL playoff series against defending Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks last weekend in Cloquet.

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Minnesota Wilderness goalie Brock Kautz keeps his eye on the puck as teammate Ivan Chukarov ties up Ethan Somoza of Fairbanks in the first period of Friday night’s NAHL playoff game at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet. The Wilderness defeated the Ice Dogs 2-1 on Friday and 4-2 Saturday to take a two-game series lead into second round of the best-of-five playoffs. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com

The Minnesota Wilderness continued their streak of red-hot play by taking the first two games of their Midwest Division NAHL playoff series against defending Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks last weekend in Cloquet.

The Wilderness rode a pair of goals from Darian Romanko to a 2-1 lead in Game One on Friday night and outlasted the Ice Dogs 4-2 on Saturday to get the series off to a perfect (and necessary) strong start.

The scheduling of the series means the remaining three games in the best-of-five series - if all three are necessary - will all be played in Fairbanks. Needing to win more than one game in Alaska would be a tough task.

“Fairbanks is an excellent team and going up there needing to win two out of three or three out of three would be really difficult,” Wilderness Coach Corey Millen said. “But we played well on our home ice and we won games we needed to win.”

Friday’s first game was a tense, low-scoring affair. Mitchell Baumann’s first goal of the playoffs staked the champions to a 1-0 lead that lasted all the way into the third period before the Wilderness, which was hamstrung by having to kill off seven Fairbanks power plays, got into the action.

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“That wasn’t in the script,” Millen said of the penalties. “These are two pretty evenly matched teams so to give them that many opportunities wasn’t what we wanted to see.”

But with the Wilderness killing off a high-sticking double minor against Alex Trapp, Darian Romanko scored a shorthanded goal at 10:29 of the third period. It came during the fifth straight Fairbanks power play of the contest and tied the game 1-1.

“Darian has meant a lot to us,” Millen said. “He’s our leading scorer, he’s a mature kid, 20 years old and experienced, and he kept his head.”

The string of Fairbanks power plays finally came to an end when defenseman Jakob Stridsberg was whistled for delay of game at 15:27 of the third period - and Romanko scored the game-winning goal on the power play 34 seconds later.

“It meant a lot to kill off all seven of their power plays and get a power-play goal ourselves,” Millen said. “The team played very well and I thought we deserved to win.”

Despite playing 14 minutes of the contest shorthanded, the Wilderness held the Ice Dogs to only 28 shots on goal, with Brock Kautz making 27 stops.

The next night, the Ice Dogs took leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in Game Two but the Wilderness hauled them back both times, rallying for a 4-2 win.

Jacob Hetz scored twice for Fairbanks, giving him five goals for the playoffs, but Dan Litchke and Nik Lehtimaki answered for the Wilderness, tying the game 2-2 after two periods. In the third, Brett Heikkila beat goaltender Patrick Munson at 4:37 to put the Wilderness ahead for the first time in the contest, and Ian Mansfield scored an empty-net goal with three seconds to play to send the crowd of 1,802 home happy.

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“The way we played Friday night carried over into Saturday,” Millen said. “We did what we needed to do, which was win twice on our home ice.”

And, after dropping the first two games of their first round playoff series against Coulee Region, the Wilderness have now won five straight games - getting hot at just the right time.

The series now shifts to Fairbanks’ Big Dipper Ice Arena, where any remaining games in the best-of-five event will be played. Millen said his team will need to play smart hockey to get the win to send them to the NAHL’s Final Four.

“[Fairbanks] got more power plays than we did in both games at home,” he said. “It’s a tough enough atmosphere up there as it is without having to kill penalties all the time. We’ll need to do the best we can to stay out of the box and play the kind of game we can play.”


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