The St. Cloud Norsemen play in the Central Division in the NAHL, the only division with just six teams. That means they get pretty familiar with their division foes. Over the course of the season they play twelve games against Austin, Bismarck and Minot each and eight against Aberdeen and North Iowa. So this weekend is a nice change of opponent and one of two weekends the Norsemen will face the Minnesota Wilderness of the Midwest Division.
The Norsemen coaching staff doesn’t mind seeing a new opponent in the least. “It’s nice to see some variety, there’s no doubt it’s nice to see that and the travel is pretty easy,” explains St. Cloud Norsemen Head Coach Corey Millen, as it’s less than a two and a half hour drive from St. Cloud to Cloquet. “It’s a bonus and it’s good for us to see other teams.”
The Norsemen coaching staff also have a strong connection to the Minnesota Wilderness; Millen’s hometown is Cloquet and he was the Wilderness Head Coach for three seasons from 2013-16. We ask Millen if getting to go back and coach in the town where he grew up and where he won a Robertson Cup in 2015 makes the games more special. “Only if we win, that’s the only thing that matters,” Millen jokes with a smile. “No… it’s fun to go back; I have friends and family there, so it’s always nice to go back there and play.”
It’s a homecoming of sorts for St. Cloud Norsemen Assistant Coach Brock Kautz as well, as he was on that 2015 Robertson Cup Champion Wilderness team. A 5th year NAHL goaltender in that season, Kautz split time with Ryan Anderson during the regular season but stepped his game up in the playoffs and took the reins from there. After the Wilderness dropped their first two playoff games they never lost another game, winning ten straight with Kautz playing every minute of every game other than the third period of a game his team was comfortably up 8-0. At the end of that playoff run Kautz had a 10-1 record with a 1.43 goals against average and a .944 save percentage and in seven of those games he gave up one or no goals. The road to the Robertson Cup for Kautz included sweeping his former team the Janesville Jets on the road, giving up a total of two goals in the series, then winning a 2-1 game vs. Austin in quadruple overtime for the first game of the Robertson Cup National Championship series before shutting them out 4-0 to clinch the Cup in Austin.
Kautz isn’t shy about expressing his fondness for his former organization and the city of Cloquet. “I haven’t been up there for a long time so it’ll be pretty exciting to be up there,” admits Kautz. “That place gave me a lot and a lot of memories from my junior career. It was nice to win in that city with Corey so it’s exciting for both of us to get back up there.”
St. Cloud comes in off a nice weekend, winning their lone game on Saturday with a 3-1 road victory over the North Iowa Bulls. Defensemen scored the first two goals with Duke Kiffin getting his first goal of the 2022-23 campaign and Chase Cheslock scoring his first career NAHL tally before Blake Perbix iced it with an empty netter and goalie Ethan Dahlmeir got 23 saves for the “W.” While they feel there was room for improvement, the coaching staff seems pleased with the Norsemen’s game.
“I thought we played pretty well at times. I think that there’s some things we certainly wanna clean up and we wanna get better at but for the most part I thought the boys put a pretty good effort together,” Millen concedes. “Anytime you go on the road and win, it’s good. I was fairly happy with the performance.”
Kautz had similar thoughts on the victory. “It’s nice to get two points. For the most part we played hard, we played well, but we still have to find a way to play a full sixty minutes and play a little bit more consistently,“ acknowledges Kautz.
Perhaps no one was happier regarding the game than Norsemen forward Tyler Dysart, who was playing for the first time since September. Dysart missed four games due to injury and wasn’t bashful about how great it felt to get back in the action. “I think it was great. It’s always tough when you’re out for a few games, making sure you’re coming back strong and doing the best you can to help the team win,” offers up Dysart. “It felt really good to come back and get that win in Mason City.”
Outside of just Dysart, the Norsemen have been bitten pretty badly by the injury bug early in the season, but the team seems to be getting healthier going into the weekend. When pointing out that the team seems to be getting healthier, Dysart comments “I think it’s great because we kinda see, even daily, less guys wearing red jerseys (indicating no contact) at practice. After that slump we were in, we have a lot of guys coming back and we’re very excited to see how we can move forward from this.”
Even the coaching staff seems cautiously optimistic about the team healing up. “Every day guys feel better and better and we just gotta hope that that continues day after day and we’ll see where we’re at Friday and Saturday,” Kautz explains.
There was a scary moment for Dysart in the game; to start the third period on the power play Norsemen winger Kade Peterson took a one-timer that was tipped and hit Dysart above the lip. But Dysart says he was never concerned with maybe having to sit out due to the cut. “I went back (to the bench) and found out that they could stitch me up right there and my first thought was ‘When can I get back out there?’ I’m all good, everything’s fine, you kinda just move on from it,” Dysart reassures.
The Minnesota Wilderness currently sit fifth out of the eight teams in the Midwest Division with a 7-4-1-1 record, good for 16 points in 13 games. Kevin Marx Noran (8-4-12), who began the season with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, leads the team in points but Adam Johnson (1-10-11), Ren Morque (0-11-11), and Joe Cesario (3-7-10) are also already into double digits on the year. Where the Wilderness have been really successful has been an incredibly stingy defense. Led by Swedish goalie and St. Cloud State University commit Isak Posch, who was the NAHL Midwest Division Star of the Week over the weekend, the Wilderness are surrendering just 2.23 goals per game, which is 5th best in the league. Posch boasts a 5-3-0-1 record with a 1.85 goals against average and a .935 save percentage.
One area of the game fans may want to keep an eye on is if the Norsemen go on a Pantown Brewing Penalty Kill, as that’s an area of strength for both teams. The Wilderness have scored nine goals on 35 chances and their 25.7% conversion rate is seventh in the league, but the Norsemen’s penalty kill is second among the 29 teams, surrendering just six goals in 56 chances, good for a 89.3% kill rate.
Whatever happens, it should be a good test for the Norsemen to see a different style of hockey coming over from the Midwest Division, and for the fans, just one of two chances on the season to see a different opponent than the regular Central Division opponents (the other being when the Wilderness return to St. Cloud on Saturday, December 3rd). Friday’s game in Cloquet will have the puck drop at 7:15 PM and can be watched online at hockeytv.com. The Saturday rematch will take place at 7:00 PM and tickets are still available online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.