Wilderness/Steel Meet in Home-and-Home Series

Who:  Minnesota Wilderness vs. Chippewa Steel

When: Jan. 20, 7:00 p.m., Jan. 21, 7:15 p.m.

Where:  Friday: Chippewa Area Hockey Association, Chippewa Falls, WI; Saturday: Northwoods Credit Union Arena, Cloquet, MN

The lead:  Wilderness look to bounce back in weekend set vs. Steel.

Media:  All of the action can be seen on Hockeytv.com.

Records:  Chippewa: 17-14-2; Minnesota: 19-12-4

Midwest Division standings

Team Points Games played
1 Fairbanks 47 36
2 Minnesota 42 35
3 Kenai River 40 37
4 Janesville 39 37
5 Wisconsin 38 33
6 Chippewa 36 33
7 Anchorage 34 33
8 Springfield 30 32

Last weekend:

Chippewa was idle Jan. 13-14.  The Steel last played on Jan. 6-7 in Janesville, where it split a weekend series; Chippewa was victorious in game 1, 5-3, while the Jets won game 2, 5-1.

The Wilderness lost two games in Eagle River, WI last weekend vs. the Wisconsin Windigo by scores of 3-0 and 4-3.

 Season series:  These will be the fifth and sixth meetings this season between Minnesota and Chippewa. In the previous four contests, each team won twice: The Wilderness winning Nov. 18 (4-3 OT), Nov. 23 (2-1 SO), and Chippewa winning Nov. 19 (5-2) and Dec. 9 (4-3 SO).

Pointless in Wisconsin: The two regulation losses at the hands of the Windigo last weekend marked the first time since opening weekend when the Wilderness failed to win a game a two-game series. Fairbanks defeated Minnesota 6-2 and 3-2 on Sept. 9-10, and since then, the Wilderness earned at least one win in each weekend series, until last weekend’s games in Eagle River.

Special Teams Update: The Wilderness statistically still holds one of the NAHL’s top power play units but is currently in its longest drought of the season.  Minnesota has gone scoreless on the man-advantage in its last 13 opportunities, with its last power play goal coming on Jan. 6 vs. Kenai River.

On the penalty kill, Minnesota has seen some improvement.  After allowing five goals on eight chances over back-to-back games on Dec. 17 and Jan. 6, the Wilderness has allowed only one opponent power-play goal in the last 15 chances.

 Injury Update: The Wilderness added to their list of injured players last weekend.  Last Saturday, Minnesota sat out four defenseman due to injury, and one forward due to illness. Max Wattvil added to the list of banged up d-men after suffering an upper body injury in Friday’s game.  He joins Michael Quinn, Gustavs Ozolins and Jameson O’flynn on the list of injured blueliners.  Forward Donovan O’Neill also missed both games last weekend due to illness.

Saturday 2-Point Games: Two players used to putting up multi-point games accomplished that feat again last Saturday.  Kevin Marx Noren finished with 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists), while Gunnar Thoreson registered two points (1 goal, 1 assist)  in the 4-3 loss to Wisconsin.

It’s the fifth time in the last 8 games Marx Noren has put up at least 2 points. In the 17 games this season the veteran from Knivsta, Sweden, has scored at least one point, he has added at least one more in 8.  He currently leads the Wilderness with 15 goals and 30 points in 33 games played for 2022-23.

Thoreson’s 2-point game was his fifth this season, and 24th in his 3-year Jr. career.  In 29 games, the Andover, MN, native is 4th on the team with 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) this season.

 Alumni Report: For the second time this season, former Wilderness defenseman Aaron Pionk has appeared on the NHL’s Central Scouting list.   Pionk is among 224 North American skaters on the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s mid-term rankings of players eligible for the 2023 draft released this week.  A native of Hermantown, MN, Pionk spent the end of the 2020-21 season and all of 2021-22 with the Wilderness.  Pionk is committed to play college hockey at Minnesota State and currently plays in the USHL with the Waterloo Black Hawks.

 Steel Note—Gajan Returns:  One of the stars from the World Junior Championship is back with the Chippewa Steel.  Adam Gajan helped lead Team Slovakia to the tournament’s quarter-final round, and was named the event’s top goaltender.  The native of Poprad, Slovakia, finished with a tournament-best save percentage of .936, along with a GAA of 2.56 and a 2-2 record over four games played.  His performance in games vs. Team USA and Team Canada were what drew the attention of most of the scouts attending the tournament, which concluded earlier this month in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada.  Gajan led Slovakia to a 6-3 upset win over Team USA, where he made 33 saves, and in the quarter-finals, he turned aside 53 shots from Team Canada, in a game the Canadians won, 4-3, in overtime.

Local hockey fans will get used to hearing Gajan’s name quite often within the next few years, as he is committed to play in the NCAA with Minnesota-Duluth.