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Wilderness bow out of playoffs

The Minnesota Wilderness rallied Friday only to end the season the next night with a 6-2 loss to the Anchorage Wolverines at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.

The Wilderness, which trailed the five-game playoff series 2-0 coming into the weekend, extended the season Friday by beating the Wolverines 4-1, but Anchorage bounced back Saturday to win and take the series 3-1.

"After winning on Friday night I think we were maybe emotionally drained," said Wilderness coach Colten St. Clair. "They came out flying and then won the first period and we weren't able to get things back to even."

In their first home game of the series, the Wilderness (30-25-5) came up with a strong physical game. Colorado's Daniel Astapovich scored twice and Adam Prokop, of Wausau, Wisconsin, had an impressive 32 saves on 33 shots in net.

The Wolverines spoiled Prokop's shutout bid when Kade Shea scored with 2 minutes, 3 seconds remaining in the game. Shea is a former Denfeld Hunter.

"In the nets, Prokop made the saves he had to and he kept us in the game," St. Clair said. "Dan (Astapovich) is an energy guy, he's a competitor and had one of his better games for us. He played hard and got rewarded for his efforts."

Ren Morque, of Grand Rapids, opened the scoring for Minnesota on Friday, registering his first career playoff goal 4:35 into the first period. The veteran beat the Anchorage goalie on a shot from the right face-off circle as the two teams skated 4-on-4.

After playing physically and extending the series with Friday's victory, the Wilderness were feeling good entering Saturday's game.

"We had a good meeting and said all the right things prior to the game," St. Clair said. "We just struggled early in the game and then ended up trailing and we weren't able to overcome the slow start."

Trailing 2-0, the Wilderness cut into the lead and eventually tied the game at 2-2 just before the midway point of the second stanza. Unfortunately, the Wolverines were able to add two goals before the period ended and took a 4-2 lead entering the final period.

"Anchorage skates well and they push the pace," St. Clair said. "We were physical on Friday, but it just wasn't there on Saturday. We just couldn't put it together."

With the loss, the season ended for the Wilderness and its rollercoaster year.

"At the end of the year, if you can say you worked hard, you were there for each other and you loved coming to the rink and worked hard, then you can say it was a successful year," St. Clair said. "I can't thank this group enough. They taught me far more than I taught them and I appreciate that. There were spurts where we were real good and I can't be more thankful for the season we had."

With the loss, the junior hockey careers of 13 Wilderness players also concluded. The following players either have turned 21 or will later this year, and therefore, become ineligible to play an extra season: Kole Altergott, Nolan Bettens, Nick Blood, Joe Cesario, Nash Jacobsma, Beau Janzig, Adam Johnson, Joe Manning, Morque, Gustavs Ozolins, Peteris Purmalis, Oliver Stümpel, and Hayden Walters.

The rest of the Wilderness roster will be eligible to return for next season.

The Cloquet franchise finished its season in the North American Hockey League's Robertson Cup playoffs for the ninth time in 11 seasons.

The top-seeded Anchorage Wolverines now face the No. 2 seed Wisconsin Windigo in the Midwest Division finals.

In other news, the junior hockey team is expected to sign another three-year lease with the city of Cloquet, to continue making Northwoods Credit Union Arena their home rink. City administrator Tim Peterson said the final terms of the lease are still being negotiated, but won't change much.

"There is no specific language on Tier II or Tier III teams, however it is my understanding that the current team will be staying in Cloquet," Peterson said, when asked about the possibility of the Wilderness bringing its newly purchased Tier III team here.

 
 
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