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Playoffs: Wilderness keep season alive with Game 3 win

Game 4 is tonight at 7 p.m.

A common phrase in sports is “Good play creates good bounces”. The Minnesota Wilderness took advantage of that philosophy Friday night with its first two goals off lucky bounces, and carried that momentum for a 4-1 victory over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Game 3 of their best-of-five Midwest Division semi-final series.

The Wilderness began the scoring in the first period doing something they have had trouble doing through most of this playoff series—killing penalties. Fairbanks came into the game 4-for-8 on the power play, and on their first man-advantage opportunity, Ethan Wolthers was credited with a short-handed goal to make it 1-0. While controlling the puck in the Fairbanks zone, a Wolthers pass across the front of the Ice Dogs net was redirected by Fairbanks forward Tyler Stewart past netminder Kayden Hargraves and into his own goal, as he attempted to intercept the pass.

The unassisted goal was Wolthers first of the playoffs.

Minnesota kept up the momentum into the 2nd period and added to its lead with something else it had not yet done in the playoffs—score a power play goal. The Wilderness came into the game 0-for-6 on the man-advantage in the post-season , and on its 2nd opportunity of the night, finally broke through. At the 4:50 mark of the middle frame, a Max Neill shot off the cross-bar deflected toward Niko Rexine positioned just to the right of the Fairbanks net. The puck then went off of Rexine’s helmet and then his shoulder before trickling into the Fairbanks net for the rookie’s first playoff goal.

Rexine said the team will take the bounces that go their way, “Sometimes there’s games when you don’t catch those breaks, it was nice tonight to get those breaks.”

Max Ruoho also assisted on Rexine’s tally for his NAHL playoff point.

The Wilderness made it 3-0 with a Will Persson goal—his 2nd of the playoffs, assisted by Neill (his third of the playoff) and Rexine (his 2nd point of the night and 3rd of the playoffs)--with 6:49 left in the 2nd period, although that 3-goal lead did not last long. Fairbanks countered just 17 seconds later, when Billy Renfrew converted on a 3-on-1 break to beat Matt Smith for Fairbanks’ lone goal of the night.

Despite being outshot by the Ice Dogs in the 3rd period, 9-8, the Wilderness managed to add to its lead. Jared Mangan iced the game with this first playoff goal with 3:30 left to play. A nifty between-the-legs backhand pass by Haden Kruse set up the goal, that was finished with Mangan firing a wrist shot that darted over Hargraves’ right shoulder. Barrett Hall also assisted on Mangan’s tally; it was his third playoff point, and the rookie from Charleston, SC, has at least one point in each game of this series.

The Wilderness finished the night outshooting Fairbanks 32-28, with Matt Smith earning his first Jr. A playoff win with 27 saves. With the victory, Smith helped snap a 6-game playoff losing streak for the Wilderness franchise dating back to April 20, 2018. He becomes the first Minnesota netminder to win a playoff game since Jacob Sibell backstopped a 3-2 triumph over Austin in the 2018 Central Division semi-finals.

For Fairbanks, Hargraves suffered his first loss of the 2022 playoffs, making 28 saves.

Minnesota also gained the upper hand on the special teams, blanking the Ice Dogs on all three of their power-play opportunities, while going 1-for-3 on its own man-advantage situations.

Fairbanks continues to lead the series 2-games-to-1. The Wilderness will again be in a must-win situation Saturday for Game 4. That contest will also be played in Cloquet, with puck drop set for 7:15 p.m.