A tight Midwest Division playoff race got even tighter Friday night, as the Minnesota Wilderness slipped past the Springfield Jr. Blues, 4-3.
Four different players scored for the Wilderness, with rookie Jared Mangan leading the way, adding two assists for three points. The Charleston, SC, native opened the scoring at 9:43 of the first period with his 2nd goal of the season. He then helped set up Ethan Wolthers on a power-play goal with 5:38 that gave Minnesota a 2-0 lead.
That lead vanished before the 2nd period hit the half-way mark as Springfield applied terrific puck control and a tight forecheck. The line of Isaac Keller, Brayden Cook and Hayden Riva struck twice, with Keller scoring at the 4:31 mark, followed by Cook popping one in at 8:51.
The Wilderness would recover and regained the lead on a terrific display of marksmanship from Gunnar Thoreson. On the power play, Thoreson threaded the needle on a shot from the bottom of the circle to the left of Jr. Blues goaltender Ethan Roberts, sending the puck through a hole not much bigger than the size of a softball between Roberts glove side and the left post.
It was the 13th goal of the season for Thoreson, and thanks also to one assist in the game, now leads the team with 46 points.
Thoreson said he didn’t even see how much space he had to shoot at before he fired the puck, and was just sending it to the net hoping something good would happen.
“It was just muscle memory,” he said after the game.
The 3-2 advantage held up through the end of the 3rd period. The Wilderness would get one more to make it 4-2 with 8:37 left when Severi Sulonen fired a laser high on Roberts’ stick side from the left face-off dot for his 3rd goal of his rookie season.
Springfield ratcheted up the pressure in the final minutes, hoping to avoid their fifth straight home loss. Keller had one point-blank chance denied on a splendid save from Wilderness goaltender Matt Smith in the waning minutes. The Jr. Blues did manage a power-play goal with 2:11 left from Hagen Moe while also pulling their goaltender to give them 6 attackers, but they would not get any closer.
Smith finished with 25 saves to keep his record perfect at 7-0, with this win coming against the team he started the season with and only 90 minutes from his hometown of Fenton, MO.
It was another solid night on the power-play, as Minnesota finished the game with goals on both of their opportunities. Through the first two games on this road trip, the Wilderness are 3 for 5 with the man-advantage.
With the victory, the Wilderness have now won 3 straight games, and 10 of their last 11. It also lifts them into at least a temporary tie for 3rd place with Anchorage (the Wolverines play later tonight vs. Fairbanks). Janesville also knotted themselves with Anchorage thanks to a victory over Chippewa. They also sit 10 points behind Springfield and 12 points back of first place Anchorage.
Minnesota and the Jr. Blues will close out the weekend series Saturday night. Game 2 has puck drop scheduled for 6:05.