Wilderness sets sights on playoffs
April 14, 2023
The Minnesota Wilderness tuned up for the upcoming Robertson Cup playoffs by exorcizing a demon last week.
Following eight straight losses to Midwest Division regular season champion Wisconsin Windigo, including a 1-0 loss April 6 in Cloquet, the Wilderness pulled out a 3-2 win on April 7.
The team scored a goal in each period, from Kevin Marx NorÃ©n, Oliver StÃ¼mpel and Sawyer Scholl. Isak Posch tied the team record for wins by a goalie, getting 25 saves for his 24th victory of the season. Posch is committed to enroll at St. Cloud State University this fall.
"We had lost a couple games against them, and so for us to manage to get a win we showed them we're not a team to mess with and play around with," NorÃ©n said after practice
With the win, Minnesota (33-18-7) secured second place in the division, with 73 points to Wisconsin's 77.
Minnesota will play host to the eventual third-place team to start the playoffs next week. The Chippewa Steel and Kenai River Brown Bears are vying for the third and fourth positions. Minnesota plays the Steel in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin for two games this weekend to wrap up the regular season. The results of those games will help determine the Wilderness' playoff opponent.
"We showed them we mean business," Gunnar Thoreson said of beating the Windigo.
Thoreson is the Wilderness' franchise leader in games played with 175, including playoff games, having spent parts of three seasons with the team. Committed to play at St. Lawrence University in New York, the 21-year-old forward talked about his relationship to Cloquet and the team.
"It's just a really good thing going here and it means a lot to hold a feat like that," Thoreson said. "It's hard to stay around the same team in junior hockey for three years. ... I feel like the organization, coaches and general manager respect how I play and I respect them."
Thoreson came to Cloquet from a Minnesota hockey hotbed in Andover. He has enjoyed the ride.
"It's a great tradition and a lot of good fans up here," he said. "It's been great playing up here."
Gearing up for the playoffs, he noted it's been since the 2015-16 season that the team won the 16-team Robertson Cup playoffs, despite reaching the playoffs eight times in the team's 10 seasons.
"You could say it's a bit of a drought," Thoreson said. "To get to the Robertson Cup and then go win it would be huge. Just to show that this organization is still a championship organization and that's the players we produce here."
NorÃ©n leads the team with 31 goals and 56 points. The 20-year-old forward set a team record this season with 14 power play goals. He reflected on that success.
"It's a five-man unit and [head coach Brett] Skinner is a very intelligent coach who puts up a good plan for us and sets me up with opportunities for me to score," NorÃ©n said. "I'm grateful to be in that position and be able to produce for the team."
Asked if he was always such a humble scorer, NorÃ©n showed his competitive teeth.
"When I score I want to put as many pucks in the back of the net as I can, and score as many goals as I can," said NorÃ©n, a native of Knivsta, Sweden. "I want to show their goalie no respect in that sense. Otherwise, I would say so [about being humble]."
NorÃ©n was a trade acquisition by the team last season. Earlier this year, the team overturned its roster with several trades intended to add scoring punch. NorÃ©n addressed the chemistry of the team and how it didn't come right away.
"The thing with getting a lot of new players is you've just got to get the team morale going," NorÃ©n said. "We had a little cold period just after the trade deadline but when we went to Alaska we started to get to know each other."
The Wilderness finished 4-0 in two weeks of play in Alaska in March, and never stopped winning at a good clip after that.
"That definitely strengthened the team morale," NorÃ©n said. "The players we picked up are really good players. Now we're competing for the Midwest Division title."
If Minnesota can come out of the Midwest Division and reach the Robertson Cup semifinals with the North American Hockey League's four division winners, it'll likely have to face down the Windigo to do it.
"It was huge for our confidence," Thoreson said of beating the Windigo last week. "They have to show a little respect for us. If they do slip, we can beat them."