Wilderness Move into Playoff Position with Win over Brown Bears

Niko Rexine scored twice and Matt Smith made 30 saves to lead the Minnesota Wilderness to a 3-1 victory over the Kenai River Brown Bears Thursday night.  The win catapults the Wilderness over the Anchorage Wolverines and places them into a tie with the Janesville Jets for third place in the NAHL’s Midwest Division, where teams finishing in the top four will end up qualifying for the league’s playoffs.

It’s the Wilderness’ third victory on their Alaska road trip, which began with three games in Anchorage, where Minnesota went 2-1.

Minnesota (28-21-1) controlled play through most of the game, but both teams had trouble getting on the scoreboard through the first 30 minutes.

The Wilderness outshot the Brown Bears (13-34-5) in period 1, 13-12, despite Kenai generating the frame’s best scoring chance.  The Brown Bears appeared to have gotten one past Minnesota netminder Matt Smith with 3:22 left, but an early whistle from the official led to the goal being waved off.

However, Kenai River did manage to cash in on the game’s first tally.  With 9:47 left in the second, good puck movement was punctuated by a wrist shot from Sean Henry from the top of the right circle that beat Smith on the glove side.  Hunter Newhouse and Noah Holt assisted on the goal, which was Henry’s 6th of the season.

The Wilderness kept battling, and managed to outshoot the Brown Bears in the middle frame by a 19-9 count.  They finally beat Kenai goaltender Bryant Marks on the power play with 3:29 remaining in the 2nd.  Rexine fired in his 14th red-lighter of the season on a rebound from the bottom of the circle to Marks’ right.

Minnesota’s persistence led to one more before the 2nd period was over.  Just 1:13 after Rexine’s goal, Sam Antenucci managed to fire in his own rebound for his 7th of the season, to make the score 2-1. Assists on the goal went to Alex Pineau and Ren Morque; the first for Morque since joining the Wilderness after his senior season at Grand Rapids High School came to an end.

For special teams, the Wilderness finished 1 for 6 on the man-advantage, and kept Kenai River, coming into the game 2nd in league power-play success, scoreless on two chances.

The Wilderness would get one more with 12 seconds left in the final period, when Rexine knocked in an empty netter.  With his two goals, Rexine moved to the top of the Wilderness statistics with 50 points – becoming only the fourth player in team history to reach the half-century plateau.

For the game, the Wilderness outshot Kenai 41-30.  Marks finished with 46 saves and saw his record drop to 4-11-2.  Meanwhile, the rookie Smith won for the 10th time this season, improving his record to 10-1.

The Wilderness and Brown Bears have two more games left on the weekend.  Game 2 of the series is scheduled for Friday night, 7:30 AK time.