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Junior hockey: Aberdeen eliminates Wilderness in OT

CLOQUET -- Entering Monday's win-or-go-home showdown, the Minnesota Wilderness and Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings had scored a combined 24 goals through the first four games of their North American Hockey League quarterfinal playoff series.

Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com The Wilderness’ Tim Nicksic takes a stick to the head as he battles Aberdeen’s Carter Roo (hidden) and Colin Raver for the puck during Monday’s NAHL quarterfinal game at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. The play resulted in a two-minute power-play opportunity for the Wilderness, but they were unable to score on it.
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com The Wilderness’ Tim Nicksic takes a stick to the head as he battles Aberdeen’s Carter Roo (hidden) and Colin Raver for the puck during Monday’s NAHL quarterfinal game at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. The play resulted in a two-minute power-play opportunity for the Wilderness, but they were unable to score on it.

CLOQUET - Entering Monday's win-or-go-home showdown, the Minnesota Wilderness and Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings had scored a combined 24 goals through the first four games of their North American Hockey League quarterfinal playoff series.

The 25th goal turned out to be the series-clincher.

And it didn't arrive until more than 75 minutes of hockey had been played Monday night at Northwoods Arena, where the goalies - the Wings' Forbes Ploszaj and the Wilderness' Trevor Micucci - pushed back for the first time in this series, unwilling to allow another offensive fireworks display.

On the 89th shot on goal, Aberdeen's Colin Raver blasted home a one-timer from the slot 15:05 into overtime to seal Game 5 and send the Wings into the Robertson Cup semifinals starting Thursday at Heritage Center.

Raver was all alone in front following what Minnesota coach Tim Madsen called a defensive breakdown.

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"The team that made the last mistake was going to lose," Madsen said upon the conclusion of his first season on the Wilderness bench.

Tyler Bossert assisted on the game-winner, which deflated a robust Monday night crowd in Cloquet. Raver was in the right place at the right time.

"You know what - he's been in the right place for the last three or four months now," Aberdeen coach Scott Langer said.

The Wilderness were playing their second decisive Game 5 at home against a South Dakota-based team in two weeks. They eliminated Brookings on April 24.

Monday, though, wasn't as kind. Minnesota came up empty on four power plays and couldn't crack Ploszaj despite firing 46 shots at him.

His counterpart on the other end of the ice was just as stout. Micucci, from Buffalo, N.Y., got off to a rocky start, allowing dangerous rebounds throughout the first period. But he settled in beautifully after the first intermission and kept the Wilderness in it. At no time was Micucci better than when he stoned Aberdeen's Logan Jenuwine point-blank 3:14 into OT, and with the Wings on a power play.

Even more impressive about Micucci's performance: Monday was just his third start of this postseason. He played in Game 2 on April 29, then gave way to Luke Kania. Micucci found out Sunday afternoon he was getting the nod.

"He was ready to play," Madsen said. "I told Trevor to stick with us, that he'd have another chance. He was hungry. He was our best player tonight."

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Micucci made 42 saves. In the process, he rekindled memories of Kasimir Kaskisuo, the former Wilderness star who went on to star at Minnesota Duluth for two years before turning pro. This building has seen its share of good goaltending.

Micucci said he spent the week-plus in between appearances doing whatever he could to stay sharp. If we was called upon, Micucci wanted to be ready. He certainly was Monday.

"It was the most fun game of the year," Micucci said. "Bummed we didn't get the job done, but I know everyone in that locker room can say they did everything they possible could."

The Wilderness were hoping to get to Heritage Center this week for the Robertson Cup semis and final, which run Thursday through Sunday. They were NAHL champs in 2015.

Instead, Aberdeen will face the Aston (Pa.) Rebels in a best-of-three series, while the Janesville (Wis.) Jets and Lone Star (Texas) Brahmas meet in the other semifinal. The winner-take-all title game is Sunday.

Langer was all too happy to keep the Wings in the Northland for another week. He wouldn't argue with a similar showing from Ploszaj against Aston. Ploszaj stopped 15 shots in the first period alone Monday.

"Our goaltender gave us a chance, and that's all you can ask for," the coach said.

Aberdeen 0-0-0-1-1
Minnesota 0-0-0-0-0
First period - No scoring.
Second period - No scoring.
Third period - No scoring.
Overtime - 1. Colin Raver (Tyler Bossert), 15:05.
Saves - Forbes Ploszaj, A, 46; Trevor Micucci, M, 42.

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Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com The Wilderness’ Michael Zuffante reaches for the puck in front of Aberdeen goalie Forbes Ploszaj during the first period of Monday’s NAHL quarterfinal game at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet.
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com The Wilderness’ Michael Zuffante reaches for the puck in front of Aberdeen goalie Forbes Ploszaj during the first period of Monday’s NAHL quarterfinal game at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet.

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