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Wilderness down to the wire for playoff berth

Saturday home game could determine postseason fate

The Minnesota Wilderness won't know their postseason fate until the last game of the season after falling to the Chippewa Steel 7-2 Friday night in Wisconsin.

It’s the second loss in as many tries for the Wilderness (34-23-2) when they have been in position to nail down a spot in this season’s NAHL Robertson Cup playoffs.

Seven different goal scorers connected for Chippewa (25-31-3). Kade Neilson, Brady Yakesh and Jackson Bisson built a 3-0 lead with tallies in the opening frame, as the Steel dominated in shots on goal 15-6.

It appeared Minnesota had gotten on the board late in the first when Niko Rexine fired one in after a goalmouth scrum. However, referee Christopher Leary had lost sight of the puck and blown the whistle before Rexine’s shot.

Minnesota’s best effort came in the first half of the second period. The Wilderness climbed back to even in the shot count and scored twice on power play goals from Cole Crusberg-Roseen and Haden Kruse to make the score 3-2.

It was the eighth goal of the season for Kruse, and 20th for Crusberg-Roseen, who tied the team’s franchise record for career goals by a defenseman.

Chippewa then returned to its first period form and used its Good Friday fortune to put the Wilderness back into the tomb by scoring three more in the middle frame. It was a power-play goal by Nick Sajevic, and even strength tallies by Sam Rice and Kaden Shahan that made the score 6-2.

The Steel would then close out their final home game of the 2021-22 campaign with a goal by Ryan Remick with 6:31 left in the final period.

The Wilderness used both goaltenders in the loss. Matt Smith started the game and took the defeat, dropping his record to 13-2-1. Smith was pulled after the first period, stopping 12 of 15 Chippewa shots.

Konrad Kausch was brought in to relieve Smith in the 2nd. He earned his first assist as a Jr. A goaltender when he jumped out about 50 feet in front of his net to break up a short-handed chance by Steel forward Joe Grainda. That death-defying move by Kausch led to the puck going to Will Persson who connected with Kruse for his goal in the middle frame.

Kausch finished the game with 14 saves on 18 shots.

Croix Kochendorfer earned the win for Chippewa with 27 saves and improved his record to 16-16-1.

Minnesota’s loss, coupled with a Janesville 5-4 overtime win over Springfield, means it will come down to the final game of the regular season to determine the final two participants to make the playoffs from the Midwest Division. The Wilderness entered the night tied with Anchorage for third place at 70 points. Janesville’s win moves them just one point behind in 5th. Anchorage could take sole possession of third place with a win tonight over the Minnesota Magicians.

The Wilderness can still clinch a playoff spot with a victory Saturday night, or a Janesville loss to Springfield, or an Anchorage regulation loss in their final two games vs. the Magicians.

Saturday’s game vs. Chippewa will be back in Cloquet. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. at Northwoods Credit Union Arena