If Max Neill’s play for the Minnesota Wilderness during this January dictated the weather, we would be in the middle of a record heat wave.
The 4th year Jr. hockey veteran from Portage La Prairie, MB, came into tonight’s game vs. Chippewa with 8 points in the 6 games played this month, and his sweltering play continued tonight with 4 more points. His 3 goals and 1 assist helped the Wilderness dominate the Steel, 5-1.
The win is Minnesota’s 5th straight, and they improved their January record to 6-1.
It’s Neill’s first hat trick in his Jr. hockey career, and the first for the Wilderness (20-18-1) this season. It’s also the first road hat trick for Minnesota since Jan. 13, 2017, when Zach Mills posted 3 at Aberdeen.
Neill began his barrage when he caught a terrific spin around backhand pass from Niko Rexine at the 8:59 mark of opening period. From the slot, Rexine connected with Neill positioned at the left post and Neill was able to slip the puck into a gaping cage past Steel goaltender Zach Hanson who was drawn to his left thanks to Rexine’s theatrics..
That celebration, however, did not last long. The Steel (17-19-2) countered just 9 seconds later thanks to a funny bounce off the end boards that caught Wilderness goaltender Konrad Kausch out of position. A dump-in that sent Kausch behind the net saw the puck skip away from him directly toward Joe Kelly, who fired it into a wide open net for this 13th goal of the season. It was the only mistake of the night for Kausch as he finished stopping the other 28 Chippewa shots, and improved his record to 4-3.
The game remained tied through the remainder of the first period. The 2nd period saw the Wilderness score 3 times and kept the Steel off the scoreboard, despite handing them 3 power play chances. Neill opened the middle frame scoring with his 2nd of the game at 5:15 on an impressive 2-way effort.
It began with Neill executing a perfect poke check that led to him forcing the puck deep in the Chippewa zone. He then fed it to Rexine along the right wing wall, and darted to the Chippewa net as Rexine fired a shot, After Hanson made the initial save, Neill pounced on the rebound to make it 2-1.
Rexine would score on his own a few moments later, but not before the Wilderness executed 2 of their best penalty kills of the season. The Steel had 2 chances to tie, but could hardly muster any offensive pressure. Those 2 futile Chippewa power plays were followed by Rexine’s goal (his 12th of the season) at 12:07 and Neill’s 3rd goal of the night, and 13th of the season with 1:41 remaining. The Wilderness would also kill 1 more Chippewa power play before the 2nd stanza concluded.
A tight 3rd period saw the Steel mount their best offensive pressure on the night, but could not solve Kausch between the pipes for Minnesota. The former Duluth East Greyhound finish the final period stopping all 10 Chippewa shots. The Wilderness would complete the scoring as Aaron Pionk notched an empty-net goal from about 170 feet away with 4:07 remaining.
For the game, the Wilderness outshot the Steel 30-29.
Rexine would finish the game with 3 points. He now has assists in 5 straight games, and 16 points in his last 9.
Also posting multiple points was defenseman Alex Pineau with 2 assists.
One concern for the Wilderness is the health of forward Will Persson who did not finish the game due to injury. The veteran from Sweden ended up being helped off the ice at the end of the 1st period after suffering damage to his lower body. Persson posted one assist in the game, and leads the Wilderness with 15 goals in 32 games.
Minnesota and Chippewa will rematch tomorrow night in Cloquet. The 2nd game of the home-and-home series is set for 7:15 at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.