Anchorage Wolverines pull away from Minnesota late to claim decisive playoff victory

In the first home playoff game of their inaugural season, the Anchorage Wolverines didn’t disappoint in front of a packed house on Friday night with a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wilderness at Ben Boeke Ice Arena.

“Coming into the building tonight we kind of expected it, not in a cocky manner but kind of like a confidence type,” forward Drake Albers said. “We knew they were expecting a tough game and that’s what we gave them. I thought we played hard every shift.”

There were no signs of rust for the Wolverines in the second round of the postseason following an extended break in action after sweeping the Springfield Jr. Blues in the first round.

“I think our penalty kill was really the difference in the game,” Anchorage coach Mike Aikens said. “We ended up scoring two short-handed goals.”

Anchorage and Minnesota spilt in the regular season with each team notching a trio of wins. On Friday, it was pair of players that have been battling injuries that helped the home team turn the game in their favor.

Albers led the team in scoring with two goals in his playoff debut. He had to watch Anchorage sweep Springfield from the bleachers while he recovered from an injury he suffered at the tail end of the regular season.

“I was the loudest person in the crowd and fired up every time,” Albers said. “I really wanted to be out there so finally getting out there feels amazing. We work all season for it and to sit by and watch was pretty tough.”

The Detroit native said that battling back from and dealing with injuries is just as much of a mental hurdle as it is physical.

“It’s tough not just on your body but mentally especially,” Albers said. “Like getting yourself back into that mental state of being confident on the ice and playing your game after you’ve been off the ice.”

Matt Johnson has been playing through an injury that Aikens says will require surgery after the season but that didn’t stop him from scoring the goal that sparked an offensive flurry for the Wolverines late the third period.

“He was a question mark going into tonight’s game and I’m really happy for him that he was able to score that goal,” Aikens said.

The opening period was scoreless but it wasn’t for a lack of trying by either team. Both goalies were stout early on. Minnesota’s Matthew Smith saved all 12 of the shots that came his way and Anchorage’s Raythan Robbins saved 17 of 17.

“Raythan was really solid,” Aikens said. “He made a bunch of good saves. I thought he controlled his rebounds really well and the goal that they did score, he just didn’t see it. That was a puck that went through traffic and we probably had a dozen of those shots tonight that could’ve gone in just like that.”

The most impressive play of the first 20 minutes of the game came on one of Robbins’ saves with less than minute left in the period. He had to nearly do a full splits to prevent the puck from finding the back of the net on what looked like a prime scoring opportunity for the Wilderness.

“He does a good job of reading the play and he can anticipate where the puck is going,” Aikens added.

The second period was just as uneventful in terms of offensive action until late in the period. The Wolverines had as many as three players in the penalty box at the 1:35 mark but held strong until that number was reduced to one.

Albers was one of the players sent to the penalty box but emerged from it to end the scoring drought with an unassisted goal with 38 seconds left in the period. However, it only took the Wilderness 34 seconds to score the game-tying goal on a power play with four seconds remaining in the period.

“It was pretty exciting,” Albers said about his first goal. “I just tried to get the crowd going. Unfortunately they scored right back.”

The third period remained tied at 1-1 until the final nine minutes when the Wolverines took control of the game with a trio of goals. They were able to take the lead despite being a man short on the ice when Johnson found the back of the net at the 8:57 mark following an assist from Cooper Morris.

“It was a great play by Cooper Morris, a great pass, and Johnson did a great job beating his guy up the ice,” Aikens said. “Johnny can really skate and he went to the net and got a good deflection.”

Anchorage would increase their lead to 3-1 after Hunter Bischoff scored with assists from Aiden Westin and Talon Sigurdson a little over three and a half minutes later.

The Wilderness attempted a last-minute rally and pulled their goalie but it backfired when Albers scored an empty-netter on an assist from Colton Friesen.

The two teams will meet again Saturday at 7 p.m. at Ben Boeke Arena.

Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.