Who: Minnesota Wilderness vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
When: Friday at 5:15p.m., Saturday at 7:15p.m.
Where: Northwoods Credit Union Arena, Cloquet, MN
The lead: The Wilderness host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the final game of 2021 and first game of 2022. This will be the first meetings in Cloquet between the two teams since Fairbanks defeated the Wilderness in game 5 of the Midwest Division Finals in the 2016 NAHL playoffs. Fairbanks would then go on to win the Robertson Cup marking the 2nd straight season the winner of the Wilderness/Ice Dog playoff series would win the league title.
Records: Wilderness: 14-16-1; Fairbanks: 22-8-1
NAHL Midwest Division standings:
Two weeks ago: Both teams were idle last week to celebrate the Christmas holiday, but both were in action the previous weekend. After dropping the first two of in a 3-game weekend series with Anchorage, the Wilderness pulled out 2-1 victory in the Sunday afternoon finale, snapping a 9-game losing streak.
Fairbanks won both games in a two-game series in Janesville, WI, beating the Jets, 6-4 Friday, and 4-1 Saturday. The Ice Dogs currently hold the NAHL’s longest active winning streak of 8 consecutive victories.
New Year’s Tradition: With the exception of 2020-21, the Wilderness have played a New Year’s Eve game every season since joining the NAHL. Five of those 7 games have been played at home. The Wilderness hold a 3-4 record on New Year’s Eve, and were victorious the last time they played on that date – a 5-3 win over the St. Cloud Blizzard in 2019.
Pionk Joins Staff: The Wilderness this week added a third member to its coaching staff. Scott Pionk will serve as an assistant to a staff that also includes head coach Dave Boitz and associate head coach Brendan Phelps. He has most recently been the operator of the Pionk Hockey Camps. Pionk returns to the bench for the first time since he spent 2004-05 as an assistant coach at UW-Superior. His coaching career also includes 7 seasons in the USHL in the 1990s: 2 seasons as head coach of Waterloo and 5 as an assistant with Omaha. His children include his son Aaron, who plays with the Wilderness, along with 2 others playing professional hockey: Neal of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and Nate of the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays.
Niko Leads in GWs: Niko Rexine’s goal on Dec. 19 was his 3rd game-winner of the season, which nudged him into the team lead in that category. Overall, the forward from Syracuse, NY, also leads all team rookies with 8 goals, 13 assists and 21 points.
Granite City Goaltender Added: In another attempt to shore up the team’s goaltending, Matthew Smith has been acquired from the NA3HL’s Granite City Lumberjacks. The 19-year-old Smith has put up stellar numbers so far this season. In 11 games with the Lumberjacks, Smith has posted an 11-0 record. His 1.09 GAA leads the NA3HL, and his .942 save percentage is 3rd. The Fenton, MO, native began the season with Springfield and posted a 5-2 win over Bismarck in his lone appearance with the Jr. Blues on Sept. 18.
The Future Maverick: This weekend’s games will mark the first for defenseman Aaron Pionk since he announced his commitment to play college hockey at MSU-Mankato of the CCHA. Pionk last week gave a verbal nod to the Mavericks. His 18 points (5 goals, 13 assists) place him third among all Wilderness defensemen.
Fairbanks Notes: The Ice Dogs’ top scorer this week announced where he plans to play his college hockey. Alexander Malinowski has committed to American International College of Atlantic Hockey. The native of Linkoping, Sweden, leads Fairbanks in points with 37 and assists with 23.