The Minnesota Wilderness’ hopes to ensure a chance to play in the post-season will have to wait one more week, as they fell Saturday to the Janesville Jets, 6-3.
The Jets scored twice in the first period and built a 5-1 lead before the mid-way point of the game. Two late Minnesota goals made things interesting in the final few minutes, but the Jets ultimately hung on for the victory, which keeps their own playoff aspirations alive.
William Gustavsson’s two goals led the way for Janesville (33-24-1). The 21-year-old Swede scored at the 3:23 mark of the 2nd period to give the Jets a 3-0 lead. That was followed by the Wilderness (34-22-2) getting on the board on a short-handed goal from Gunnar Thoreson at 5:03. That breakaway tally, Thoreson’s 17th on the year, seemed to give the Wilderness a spark, but that momentum turned back in the Jets direction just over two minutes later. The Jets would score two goals, just 2:36 apart, to give themselves a four-goal cushion—one from Arsenii Smekhnov at 7:08 and then Gustavsson with his 2nd of the game at 9:44.
The game then settled into a stalemate, as Wilderness efforts to get back in where continuously snuffed by Jet goaltender Owen Millward, and Minnesota netminder Konrad Kausch made some key saves to keep Janesville from extending its lead.
The Wilderness ended up pulling Kausch with 5:52 left in the third, and finally broke through with two extra-attacker goals just 31 seconds apart. Kullen Daikawa made it 5-2 with this third of the season with 2:38 remaining, and Ethan Wolthers made it a 2-goal game with 2:07 left with his 18th of the year.
However, an Ethan Begg tally would cancel those comeback efforts, as the Jet rookie scored on the empty Minnesota net with 1:46 left.
Kausch took the loss making 27 saves on 32 shots, as his record fell to 8-6. Millward earned his 29th victory on the season, stopping 27 of 30 Minnesota shots.
One silver lining on the night for Minnesota came with the efforts of rookie Niko Rexine. The Syracuse native assisted on the goals by Thoreson and Daikawa and ended up making history. The two helpers give Rexine 61 points, which breaks the team’s rookie record, previously held by Aaron Miller, and ties the overall single-season point mark, established by Darian Romanko. Both Miller’s and Romanko’s records were set during the team’s 2014-15 Robertson Cup championship season.
The win gives Janesville 67 points and moves them back within three of the Wilderness, who sit in 3rd place in the NAHL’s Midwest Division, and one point behind Anchorage, who occupies 4th place (Anchorage’s Saturday game vs. Fairbanks was just underway as this was being written). The Jets and Wilderness each have two games left on the season, while Anchorage will play three more after tonight. Only the top four teams in each division qualify for the post-season. Fairbanks and Springfield have claimed two of the division’s four spots, leaving the Wilderness, Anchorage and Janesville to battle for the final two.
Minnesota will have two more chances to qualify for the playoffs next weekend – as they can do so with either a win or a Janesville loss. The Wilderness will take on Chippewa in a home-and-home series, set to begin Friday night in Chippewa Falls, and concluding Saturday night in Cloquet.