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Wilderness off to fast start in playoffs

Leading their best-of-five playoff series 2-0 following wins last weekend, the Minnesota Wilderness flew to Alaska this week in their attempt to close out the Kenai River Brown Bears and advance to the Midwest Division finals.

"The next game in front of you is the most important game of the year," coach Brett Skinner said of what he's telling the team. "That's the same mentality we've had for a while now."

A two-seed in the North American Hockey League's 16-team Robertson Cup playoffs, the Wilderness beat third-seed Kenai River 3-1 last Friday and 2-1 Saturday, both games at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.

Kevin Marx Norén scored a goal in each game. Norén finished tied atop the NAHL goal-scoring leaderboard during the 2022-23 regular season with 34 goals, including a team-record 14 power play goals.

"You're going to want the best players to produce and put the puck in the net, and Kevin has been really consistent all season for us," Skinner said. "He's counted on where he plays on special teams and where he fits in the lineup."

Asked what the team is doing well, Skinner talked about limiting Kenai River's "big push" by wearing on them with "four good lines that have the ability to set up forechecks."

"They're tight games and they're a good team," Skinner said of the Brown Bears. "Our ability to score on special teams, on power play, and to keep them off the scoreboard shows our ability to execute. Our five-on-five never lacks for good effort either."

The Wilderness got three goal scorers on Friday, including Bo Cosman and Reid Daavettila, who also joined Norén in the goal-scoring column again on Saturday. Goalie Isak Posch made 46 saves on 48 shots over the weekend.

Up 2-0 on the Brown Bears, the Minnesota bunch boarded a plane this week from Minneapolis bound for Seattle then Anchorage before making the three-hour bus ride to Kenai River's home ice in Soldotna, Alaska.

The remaining games of the series begin with Game 3 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 28 (Alaska time, three hours behind Central). Game 4 (if necessary) would be 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29, and Game 5 (if necessary) would fall at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 30. All remaining games will be played in Alaska.

Needing one win to close out the series, Skinner avoided talk about having Kenai River on the ropes.

"It's a business trip," Skinner said. "It's been good, playoff hockey."

The newspaper wondered about the 20-year-old Norén's future. On a team with its fair share of Division I college commitments, Norén remains unsigned. He's got five goals in his last four games, and has generally uplifted the team's scoring punch since an early season trade to the club.

"He's probably going to get a college commitment sooner than later," Skinner said of Norén, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound native of Sweden. "It speaks to him as a person. He's being patient, and wants to make sure it's the right fit. Some guys jump on offers. He's not built that way. He takes time to do things the way he wants to do it. There's colleges interested obviously, but right now his focus is on him playing well and within our team, and making sure the team is having success. That's a priority, I believe. He's a really good player and, for sure, a D-I player. Behind the scenes the sense is he's going to get something done sooner than later."

In the other half of the Midwest Division playoff bracket, top-seed Wisconsin Windigo took a 2-0 lead on fourth-seed Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel, outscoring them 6-2 over the weekend's two games.

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