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Wilderness enjoy hot January with playoffs looming

Many Minnesota Wilderness fans were writing off the hometown team around the Christmasbreak. Not so fast, folks. The Wilderness have ripped off six straight wins and suddenly are back in the playoff hunt in the NAHL Midwest Division.

“Two things have happened for us really,” said head coach and general manager Dave Boitz. “We have gotten healthy and we have had much better goaltending during the streak.”

The Wilderness posted the second shutout in the last three games Saturday night with a 2-0 win over the Chippewa Steel at home. The win completed a sweep of the two-game home-and-home series. The Wilderness (21-18-1) took the opening game in Chippewa Falls 5-1. The sweep follows a 7-0 win Jan. 22 over the Minnesota Magicians and is the team’s sixth straight. The Wilderness finished the month of January with a 7-1 record.

Just four weeks ago the Wilderness were seven points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division. Now the Wilderness are solidly in the fourth spot and, if the playoffs began today, they would be a playoff team.

A dynamic duo of players in the net have given the team a chance to win.

“Konrad Kausch (Duluth) and Matt Smith (St. Louis) have both played since (Jan. 1) and have both played fantastic for us,” Boitz said. “Konrad has had the lion’s share because Matt has been a little dinged up.”

While the Wilderness have gotten better goaltending, they have also seen some more offense from players who are starting to get more comfortable playing in the NAHL.

“Max Neill has nine goals and six assists in his last 10 games and Niko Rexine has five goals and 12 assists in his last 10,” Boitz said. “Our defense- men have contributed as well, led by Max Ruoho with 9 assists in his last 10 games.”

The combination of more scoring and better goaltending has not only resulted in wins, but it has also given a big shot in the arm to a team that was wallowing and struggling to find itself.

“The state of the team is good right now,” Boitz said. “We have a good group that works hard every day and loves coming to the rink. We would like to see more fans come to see them play.

“The state of the times (pandemic) has had an impact on attendance. Hopefully this spring more people will venture out to see this team play.”

The next opportunity will be Feb. 12 at home against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.