In the Wilderness, there are many animals who gain superb survival instincts, where they absolutely fight tooth and nail and refuse to die. Some of them are even believed to have nine lives. In the world of junior hockey, consider the Minnesota Wilderness a very aptly named team.
During the 2021-22 regular season, the team struggled through a 9-game losing streak, just prior to the midway point of the season. It then recovered, and went on a 7-game winning streak that saw it move from 7th place to just outside of a playoff spot. It then went on an end-of-season run which led to it clinching a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, a day after dropping a 7-2 decision to the Chippewa Steel.
The post-season had a similar flavor, as the team lost its first two games in the Midwest Division semi-final versus the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, one of the games being a 7-1 blowout. The team returned home for the final three games of the best-of-five series facing elimination, and revived itself as it did in the regular season. After beating the Ice Dogs by scores 4-1 and 3-0 in games 3 and 4, the Wilderness dominated Fairbanks in the deciding game, with a 5-1 victory.
Following its true character, Minnesota fell behind to start game 5. Despite being outshot dramatically in the first period, the Ice Dogs capitalized when Brady Welsch blocked a Cole Crusberg-Roseen shot and raced through center to score a breakaway goal to make it 1-0 with 5:41 left.
The goal came on the Ice Dogs’ second shot of the game, after the Wilderness had already put up 11.
Minnesota did not let up, and tied the game 2:44 later. The scoring play began when Sam Antenucci raced to negate an icing after beating a defender to the puck deep in the Fairbanks zone, which led to a pinpoint tic-tac-toe passing play with Ethan Wolthers and Gunnar Thoreson, that Thoreson finished with a shot from directly in front of the Fairbanks net. The goal to tie the game at 1 was Thoreson’s third of the post-season.
The Wilderness finished the first period with an 18-4 shot advantage, and began the 2nd just as aggressive. After receiving a pass from Will Persson in the high slot, Crusberg-Roseen made up for his 1st period miscue with a shot that Niko Rexine redirected to put the Wilderness ahead 2-1 with his second goal of the playoffs, just 15 seconds into the period.
Minnesota never looked back from there. With 3:30 remaining in the middle frame, it made the score 3-1 when Jared Mangan won a corner battle, and fed the puck to Barrett Hall in front of the Fairbanks net who beat Ice Dog goaltender Kayden Hargraves for his first playoff goal.
Both teams traded chances through most of the third period, with the Ice Dogs getting pressure by double-shifting top scorer Alexander Malinowski. But the forward from Sweden did his team no favor when he was called for a major cross-checking penalty that led to a scrum at center ice in front of the two team’s benches. Malinowski ended up being given a game misconduct with 6:18 remaining. A 4-on-4 situation resulted as another penalty was also called on Wilderness defenseman Reid Conn, but Minnesota was still able to add to its lead.
With 5:41 remaining, a knuckle-puck shot from Alex Pineau from the high slot made the score 4-1. 1:48 later, the Wilderness completed the scoring with an empty-net goal from Niko Rexine—his 2nd of the game.
Minnesota goaltender Matt Smith won his third consecutive game in net, stopping 20 of 21 shots. Hargraves suffered his third straight loss, as the Wilderness peppered him with a series-high 46 shots.
The win clinches a 3-games-to-2 series victory, and allows Minnesota to move on to take on the Anchorage Wolverines in the Midwest Division Final. That series will also follow a best 3-out-of-5 format, and kicks off May 6th with the first of at least two games in Anchorage, AK.