The Minnesota Wilderness is going where no American team has ever gone before – to the RBC Cup.
For the first time, a team from south of the border will compete for Canada’s National Junior A Championship after the Wilderness beat the St. Michael’s Buzzers 4-3 in overtime to capture the Dudley Hewitt Cup and claim the Central Region berth at the national championship.
“The boys are stoked, I know that,” Wilderness goaltender Gordy Defiel told baytoday.ca of extending their season by another two weeks. “It’s just going to get harder and we’re going to have to step up our game. Summerside Western Capitals are a great squad and I think we’re playing them first night up there in Prince Edward Island.”
Dominant in the Superior International Junior Hockey League since joining in 2010, the Wilderness ran roughshod over SIJHL competition in 2012-13, setting league records for wins and points with a 51-3-2 mark.
Minnesota posted winning streaks of 17 and 18 games, did not lose a game in regulation time from Oct. 24 to April 19, covering 49 regular season and playoff games, and finished with a remarkable +197 goal differential, scoring 74 goals more than any other SIJHL team and allowing 80 fewer.
Not surprisingly, the Wilderness had the league’s two top scorers, Mike Dietrich and Jake Larson, five of the top 10 wore the green and white of Minnesota, and goaltenders Defiel and Joseph Jeanetta were one-two in goals-against average, both finishing with sub-2.00 marks.
After a sweep of its inter-state rivals, the Minnesota Iron Rangers, the Wilderness needed six games to eliminate Fort Frances in the SIJHL final, winning its third consecutive league championship.
Off to the Dudley Hewitt Cup for the third straight year, Minnesota dropped its opener to host North Bay, putting the Wilderness in an early hole as it looked to qualify for the playoffs at the regional tournament for the first time.
But a pair of shutout wins, 7-0 over Soo and 3-0 against St. Michael’s, gave the Wilderness first place in the preliminary round, and earned it a bye to the final, where the OJHL champion Buzzers would provide the opposition.
Minnesota jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, but St. Michael’s battled all the way back to take its first lead at 3-2 with less than 12 minutes remaining. Facing the end of its season, the Wilderness tied it with 3:28 off the stick of Ben Michaud, forcing overtime.
After both teams were denied on overtime breakaways, it was Nick Szopinski jamming in a loose puck for the winner at 11:59 of the extra period, sending the Wilderness to the RBC Cup.
“I really am actually speechless,” Defiel said right after the final. “It’s something our team’s been working for all year and it feels great, it’s awesome. The boys did it, they were blocking shots and they saved me, getting a goal late in the third period and I think that was the difference.”
Minnesota advanced one step further than the 1971 Detroit Jr. Red Wings, the only other U.S.-based team to reach a regional final. The Jr. Red Wings, champions of the Southern Ontario Junior A Hockey League, lost to the Charlottetown Islanders in six games in the final of the Hewitt-Dudley Memorial Trophy.
The Wilderness are just the second SIJHL team to qualify for the RBC Cup, following the Fort William North Stars, who won the Dudley Hewitt Cup in 2006, the last time the championship game needed overtime.
HOW THEY GOT TO SUMMERSIDE
Superior International Junior Hockey League
Semifinal: defeated Minnesota Iron Rangers 4-0 (8-3, 2-1, 4-1, 5-2)
SIJHL championship: defeated Fort Frances 4-2 (5-1, 1-2 OT, 4-1, 5-3, 1-3, 3-2 2OT)
Dudley Hewitt Cup
Preliminary round: 2-1 – 1st place (lost to North Bay 4-1, defeated Soo 7-0, defeated St. Michael’s 3-0)
Final: defeated St. Michael’s 4-3 OT
Regular Season Record: 51-3-2 (1st in SIJHL)
Goals For: 282 (1st in SIJHL)
Goals Against: 85 (1st in SIJHL)
Power Play: 71 for 224 (31.7% - 1st in SIJHL)
Penalty Killing: 205 of 224 (91.5% - 1st in SIJHL)
Longest Winning Streak: 18 (Oct. 26-Dec. 23)
Top 3 Scorers:
Playoff Record: 11-3
Goals For: 53
Goals Against: 26
Power Play: 15 for 77 (19.5%)
Penalty Killing: 48 of 58 (82.8%)
Top 3 Scorers:
NATIONAL JUNIOR A CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY
PLAYERS TO WATCH
impressive lateral movement … doesn’t give shooters much time … quick feet … aggressive mentality … never gives up on pucks … game-changing athleticism … tremendous work ethic
offensive leader … plays at an incredible pace … variety of offensive weapons … creative puck mover … lethal shot … clutch scorer … good stickhandler … protects the puck well … nice touch
offensive defenceman … generates scoring from the back end … quarterbacks the breakout … knows when to jump into the rush … smooth skater … makes good decisions … good speed