Despite excellent regular season, Anchorage Wolverines still have plenty to prove in the playoffs

Apr. 17—Since the calendar flipped to 2024, the Anchorage Wolverines have been among the best teams in the North American Hockey League, running off a two-month stretch starting in early February where they didn't lose a game in regulation.

But with the Robertson Cup playoffs starting Friday, that means a fresh start for each team. And while the Wolverines have undeniably gained confidence in winning the Midwest Division for the first time in their three years of existence, regular-season success won't account for much when they take the ice Friday.

The Wolverines host the Minnesota Wilderness this weekend at Ben Boeke Arena in the first three games of a best-of-5 series. The puck drops at 7 p.m. for Friday and Saturday's games, while game time is 4 p.m. on Sunday.

"It's the second season," Wolverines head coach Nick Walters said. "The message yesterday in the meeting with the guys is that our record is now 0-0. We're certainly proud of what we've accomplished and we're happy with it, but it doesn't really matter anymore. Now, if you win you get to play a little longer. You lose, and your season is over."

While the Wolverines have generally had their way with division foes in recent months, one team they both haven't seen much of or had success against is the Wilderness.

The two teams split a series in mid-March in Anchorage, and the Wilderness swept Anchorage in a pair of games in early January in Minnesota. All four of the games were decided by one goal. Outside of those four games, the teams played once in September and once in October, splitting the pair.

"We haven't seen them a ton," Walters said. "But you know, I've liked what we've done the few meetings that we've had with them. When we were down there, I thought we carried the play most of the time and ran into a hot goaltender. We struck first in both games up here so I like our offense against these guys."

In Minnesota, Wolverines forward Tyler Hennen sees a team that shares a number of similar traits with Anchorage.

"They're a hard-working, blue-collar team that I'd say that play similar to how we play," he said.

The Wolverines' run up the standings over the last few months was buoyed by excellent goalie play. Anchorage's Liam Beerman was named Goalie of the Month in March, going 6-0 with a .933 save percentage. That solid play will have to continue for the Wolverines to make a deep run in the playoffs. Beerman's teammate Vaughn Makar has also gone 10-2 in 18 games.

"Both guys have been outstanding for us," Walters said. "We've won hockey games with them both. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do yet. But we've got two capable guys. At this point in the year we have to ride the guys that are going."

The team is fairly healthy, and although they didn't secure the division title until the final game of the regular season, Walters said he's been especially conscious of players' needs for rest and recovery as the regular season progressed.

"We haven't had a weekend off since Christmas," he said. "It's something I've been looking at. We've done different things to make sure we're keeping the guys fresh, shorter and more intense practices."

Anchorage made the playoffs in its inaugural season, going all the way to the Robertson Cup finals. Last season, the team missed the playoffs.

Securing the top spot in the division was important for the Wolverines. Hennen said the team has worked hard to earn that distinction for one key reason: As the top seed in their playoff quadrant, Anchorage will have the chance for home-ice advantage for both the division semis and division finals.

If Anchorage can win the three home games this weekend, they'll sweep the best-of-5 series and won't have to hit the road.

Either way, Walters expects the team to be comfortable and enthusiastic playing in front of home fans.

"Our fans have been great all year," Walters said. "This place has been pretty electric."