Wilderness Wins Battle for Midwest First Place; beats Fairbanks in OT Thriller

A game between the Midwest Division’s top two teams did not disappoint Thursday night as the Minnesota Wilderness and Fairbanks Ice Dogs gave Cloquet hockey fans a dazzling show.  The Wilderness finished 5-4 victors thanks to Hunter Bulger’s overtime game-winner 2:12 into the extra frame.

Bulger scored his fifth of the season when he entered the Fairbanks zone on the left size, skated to the top of the face-off circle and beat goaltender Kayden Hargraves through the five-hole by using a defender as a screen.  Beau Janzig and Kevin Marx Norén assisted on the tally, which gave Minnesota (23-12-5) two points to regain sole possession of first place in the division.  The Wilderness and Ice Dogs (23-15-4) entered the game with 49 points and tied for the top spot in the Midwest.

Bulger’s goal and the Wilderness victory was a sign of resilience for a Minnesota squad who saw leads of 3-0 and 4-2 evaporate throughout the course of the game.

Gunnar Thoreson and Kevin Marx Norén led the way for the Wilderness offensively—with each registering one goal and two assists for a 3-point night.  In net, Isak Posch won for the fourth time in five games, with 22 saves.

Minnesota scored the contest’s first goal before the first whistle.  Thoreson pounced on a rebound of a Brian Lonergan shot that struck Hargraves’ arm and fell to the ice.  The veteran from Andover, MN, noticed the puck hit the ice next to the goaltender’s right and knocked it into a wide open for his ninth red-lighter of the year. Janzig also assisted on the marker that came 4:43 into the first period.

Thoreson then helped set up the goal to make it 2-0 using his defensive skills.  After Ice Dogs forward Kole Altergott received a pass in the Wilderness zone, Thoreson jumped in and stripped the puck away and directed it toward Marx Norén, who then skated into the Fairbanks zone on the right side.  At the 6:47 mark, the native of Knivsta, Sweden, notched his team-leading 20th of the season on a wrist shot from between the face-off circle and the blue line.

Marx Norén and Thoreson both assisted on the goal to make it 3-0.  This time it was Marx Norén who made the defensive play, when he forced a turnover at neutral ice.  Thoreson then gained possession and carried the puck into the offensive zone on the right side on a 2-on-1 with newcomer Sawyer Scholl. Scholl, a veteran from Green Bay, WI, received the puck as he skated down the middle, and fired a shot that slipped underneath Hargraves’ pads for his first goal with the Wilderness with 1:20 left in the first period.

Fairbanks answered with two consecutive markers—one on the power play in the 2nd from Billy Renfrew, and another 6:26 into the third from Julian Recine. After being outshot 13-6 in the first period, the Ice Dogs countered with a  12-7 advantage in the middle frame.  Wilderness goaltender Isak Posch stayed sharp to keep his team in front for most of the contest, including denying Fairbanks forward McCabe Dvorak on a breakaway chance early in the 2nd.

Minnesota regained a 2-goal advantage with 5:01 left in the 3rd.  After getting a pass from Joe Cesario on the right, Mitch Simmons fired a shot from the point that Hargraves angled directly to Charlie Erickson in the left circle, and the Two Harbors, MN, native banged in the rebound to make it 4-2 with his fifth of the campaign

A veteran-laden and skilled Fairbanks squad made sure that would not be the game’s final tally.  The Ice Dogs answered with two goals just 1:41 apart from Brady Welsch and Dominick Evtimov to even the game at 4.  Those goals were crucial for Fairbanks, as they allowed the team to salvage one point thanks to the game being tied after 60 minutes expired.

The game featured only two penalties—one for each squad.  Fairbanks finished one-for-one on the power play, while the Wilderness went 0-for-1.

The Wilderness outshot the Ice Dogs, 33-26.

Up next for Minnesota is two games vs. the Wisconsin Windigo.  The series in Cloquet kicks off with the opening contest Friday night at 7:15.