Robertson Cup Finals Preview: Minnesota Wilderness
May 13, 2015
The Minnesota Wilderness are on a roll heading into the Robertson Cup Finals. Back in early April, things did not look good for the Wilderness, who went down 0-2 to the Coulee Region Chill after two home losses in Games 1 and 2 of their Midwest Division Semi-Final series against the Coulee Region Chill. However, since that point, the Wilderness have rattled off eight straight wins and in the process dispatched the Chill in five games, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in three games and the Janesville Jets in two games.
The Wilderness are 6-0 on the road in the playoffs this season, which could make them the favorite to win the cup since it will be held in enemy territory in Austin, Minnesota this weekend. They have done it with gritty road wins, an effective offense and stingy defense. It is also no surprise that the two coaches in the finals are both seasoned NAHL veterans. Wilderness bench boss Corey Millen is one of the those two and has built a club that has gotten better by the game in the post-season.
Here is a look at why the Wilderness could win the cup:
Offense: Five of the top 11 scorers in the playoffs come from the Wilderness, who are lead by University of Minnesota recruit Darian Romanko. The native of Shoreview, Minnesota, leads all playoff scorers with 18 points in 10 games played. Romanko has been so good that he registered a point in every single playoff game this season, except for the last one in the 2-1 win over Janesville in Game 2. If the Bruins are going to have success against the Wilderness this weekend, Romanko has to be controlled. After that, there is major depth on offense with the likes of Aaron Miller (Bemidji State), Tyler Cline (Alaska-Fairbanks), Dan Litchke and Ian Mansfield (Army). All have been major contributors in the playoffs and Cline has been particularly clutch with three of the eight game-winning goals for his club, including the one that sent them to the Finals. After that comes a slew of depth with forwards like Niklas Lehtimaki, Michael Covach and Billy Exell. It makes the Wilderness very dangerous on offense and that is a big key.
Defense: The hidden secret as to why both the Wilderness and the Bruins have made it this far in the playoffs may be because the depth of their defense. It is widely know that one of the best defenseman in the league is UMass recruit Ivan Chukarov. But, Chukarov, who had 12 goals during the regular season, has yet to record a goal in the playoffs. However, he has focused on defense first and his six assists and +8 rating are an example of that. After that, the Wilderness have gotten steady play out of Bradley Johnson, Tyler Hart, Janis Jaks and Wayland Williams. The Wilderness defense love to play physical and during the 5-6 weeks that the playoffs have gone on, that can really wear down an opponent.
Goaltending: Back in 2010, goalie Brock Kautz began his career in the NAHL as a 16-year-old playing for the Owatonna Express. Now five years later, Kautz (a Rochester, Minnesota native) can cap a storybook career with a Robertson Cup. Kautz has been one of the feel good stories of the playoffs. Entering the post-season, it was unclear as to if Kautz would even be the starting goalie as he had only appeared in 23 regular season games, while the other Wilderness goalie, Ryan Anderson, had appeared in 40. Kautz had lost two of his final three games heading into the playoffs and lost the opening game to the Chill in the Midwest Semi-Finals. However, since that point Kautz has been lights out and his veteran experience and composure have shown through. The Wilderness do not give up many chances or shots, so as long as Kautz continues to play well, hold the fort and make key saves at key times, the Wilderness will keep on winning. For someone who has appeared in 137 career NAHL regular season and playoff games, it would be a remarkable ending to one’s junior hockey career for Kautz to win the cup in his final season and in his home state no less.
The Wilderness win if: The Wilderness are on the road, where they are comfortable and successful. The Wilderness can kill penalties to playing aggressive and tough should not hurt them too much in the series. If the offense can keep firing and Kautz can keep playing the way he has been playing, the Wilderness have the depth and experience as a team to hoist the cup. There are bound to be some Wilderness fans in Austin thanks to the short drive, so look for the road side to feel plenty comfortable playing on the road, just a short bus ride away.
Coaches Quote: “I think that being down 0-2 in the opening round of the playoffs was a real eye-opener for our group. I think going into the playoffs, we had struggled a bit down the stretch. Mentally, we were not where we needed to be. Our message was that the guys had to start playing with confidence. After the Game 3 win in Coulee Region, the guys bought in and started to realize that they could win under difficult circumstances. I think any time you get to this point of the playoffs, you have to have good goaltending, and Brock (Kautz) has been solid for us. We also have played very well as a team and stuck to our systems and really ramped up the energy and effort in our play. I think Austin is a very good team. We have played them enough to understand that they have a tremendous coaching staff and work ethic. They are determined and will be a very difficult matchup. We are looking forward to it." -Corey Millen
The NAHL previews the Austin Bruins on Thursday.