Wilderness move into Final Four
Wilderness will play next playoff games in Blaine
May 19, 2023
The Minnesota Wilderness are two big steps away from their first North American Hockey League championship since the 2015-16 season. But they may need to summit those steps without their best player.
Kevin Marx Norén's status is unknown for the next round of the playoffs beginning Friday after he was injured during a high-speed collision on the ice in the team's most recent game.
"We don't know yet - it's TBD," Wilderness coach Brett Skinner said Tuesday. "He lost some teeth, so he had to go to the hospital for that. He was out later that night."
The Wilderness swept games 3 and 4 at home against the Wisconsin Windigo last weekend, winning 5-1 and 5-3 Friday and Saturday, to clinch the best-of-five series three games to one.
Norén was taken to the Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet following a collision against the boards last Saturday. The 20-year-old forward from Knivsta, Sweden tied for the league's goal-scoring crown with 34 regular season goals and, so far, has five goals in seven playoff games.
In a brief update of the forward's condition, Skinner said Norén will be a "game-time decision," for Friday's Game 1 of the Robertson Cup semifinals.
After winning the Midwest Division title for the first time since 2015-16, the Wilderness advanced to play South Division winner Oklahoma Warriors in a best-of-three Robertson Cup semifinal with games Friday through Sunday, May 19-21 at Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Austin (Minnesota) Bruins, winner of the Central Division, will take on the East Division champion Maryland Black Bears in the other best-of-three semifinal.
All Robertson Cup semifinals games will be played in Blaine. The Wilderness and Warriors will play games 1 and 2 at 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and game 3 (if necessary) at 3 p.m. Sunday. The other semifinal games will follow the early games.
Minnesota's opponent, Oklahoma, is the top seed remaining after leading all NAHL teams during the regular season with 44 wins, 90 points and a league-best 253 goals. By contrast, the Wilderness finished with 35 wins, 77 points and 168 goals, and is the tournament's fourth seed. Maryland carries the No. 2 seed by virtue of its 40 wins and 85 points, and Austin (34 wins, 78 points) is the third seed.
Since teams don't play outside of their division, the semifinal series will be the first meetings of the season between the Wilderness and Warriors, and the same goes for Bruins versus Black Bears.
"Obviously, when you get to the Robertson Cup you expect to play a good team," Skinner said, while suggesting Minnesota emerged from a stronger division than Oklahoma.
"They ran away with their division pretty handily, so you've got to respect them," Skinner added.
The Wilderness put away the Windigo with a tidal wave of scoring last weekend at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet, getting 10 goals en route to outscoring the team from Eagle River, Wisconsin in the four-game series, 13-7.
Michael Quinn scored twice Friday's 5-1 win, while Norén, Oliver Stümpel and Ashton Dahms added single goals as Minnesota outshot Wisconsin 34-30. The teams combined to go 1-for-16 on the power play, with Norén breaking through for Minnesota.
On Saturday, Minnesota got two more power play goals, and a shorthanded goal from Adam Johnson midway through the second period that proved to be the game winner and series clincher. It was the third straight game Minnesota scored on the penalty kill.
The shorthanded goal midway through the second period caused Wisconsin to fall behind 4-2 and change its goalies.
"That's been a trend for our penalty kill for the past eight weeks," Skinner said. "You take the goals where you can get them when it comes to penalty kill. It's good to have players who make good reads and jumps on the puck, and they're allowed to do that. It's also a product of our energy at this time of year. Guys are putting it together from a defensive standpoint. They're buying in."
Goalie Isak Posch improved to 6-1 in the playoffs, stopping 33 of 36 shots in Game 4 as Wisconsin outshot Minnesota by a wide margin, 36-19. Posch allowed only one power play goal in the four-game series.
"We're a team that defends hard and defends well," Skinner said. "But when it comes down to it, we know he's back there and he's been steady and consistent for us all year."
Wisconsin had won eight of 10 games against the Wilderness during the regular season, but Minnesota won four of the last five meetings, including playoffs.
"We weren't completely lost playing against them," Skinner said, describing how Wisconsin often caught them at the right time during the regular season.
Now, the Cloquet team will be running into the unknown against Oklahoma, and maybe without Norén.
"We're happy with where we're at," Skinner said. "We're executing well and excited to get to Blaine."
With a lot of players from Minnesota, Skinner said he figures fans and family members will flock to the team's games roughly two hours south of Cloquet off of Interstate 35.
"For us it's a short trip," Skinner said. "It's good proximity for fans to come down and for families to fly in and see their kids. We're excited. Closer to home is probably better for us."
The winners of each semifinal series will advance to play one another in the Robertson Cup final starting next week.