It’s just like deja vu.
Last season, the Coulee Region Chill used a late-season push to secure the Midwest Division’s fourth and final playoff spot. Now, they’re doing the exact same thing, with an even better seeding still within their grasp.
“I think we’re finding our potential, and we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Ryan Egan, Coulee Region’s first-year coach.
December, January and February were difficult months for Coulee Region, but March has been much better to the Chill, who are playing their best hockey at the perfect time.
This past weekend’s sweep of Springfield brought their season-best winning streak to six games, and pushed them four points above the fifth-place Junior Blues. The Chill are also just five points behind third-place Fairbanks with four games still in hand.
Though postseason qualification is far from locked up, Coulee Region is back in control of its own destiny for the first time in nearly three months.
“We feel good,” said Egan, whose team travels to Janesville for a Thursday matchup before playing a two-game set against Austin over the weekend.
“I think this weekend is going to tell us a lot about ourselves. ... Those are games that we want to win, and if we can come out with points this weekend, we’ll feel pretty good about ourselves.”
As the NAHL regular season nears its end, the Midwest Division standings are still difficult to interpret. That’s been the case for a while, and that has meant a few things — both good and bad — for Coulee Region.
Just over three months ago, the Chill were an unwavering fixture in the postseason conversation, keeping both the Janesville Jets and Minnesota Magicians — still first- and second-place teams in the Midwest, respectively — within their sights while boasting significant games in hand over both; and over each of its division rivals, for that matter. Coulee Region was a division-title contender back then.
Now, with just nine games remaining on their schedule, the Chill still have those games in their back pocket, as they’ve played two less than any other Midwest Division team. But their season outlook has changed dramatically, as have the teams they’re chasing.
Still, Coulee Region is still very much in the postseason hunt. And regardless of seeding, Egan thinks the Chill will be a dangerous opponent for whoever they draw, including the division-champion Jets.
“The one thing I will say is, I don’t think there are a whole lot of teams in our division that want to see us in the first round,” Egan said. “Whether we finish second, third or fourth, there are some teams that aren’t going to want to see us, because they know what we’re capable of.
“We maybe haven’t been the most consistent team throughout the season, but I would definitely consider us to be one of the most dangerous teams. I think we’ve proven in the league that we can beat anybody.”
Brad Arvanitis’ NAHL introduction was rocky.
He won just one of his first six starts for Coulee Region, and produced a 2-7 record through 10. He also managed a .902 save percentage over those appearances, a figure that dropped below .891 half the time.
Thankfully for Coulee Region, Arvanitis’ late-season form has dramatically improved, and the Chill are reaping the benefits.
“He’s a guy that showed up, wanted to be here, wanted to stick around, and he’s gotten better every single day he’s been here,” Egan said, “and I think the guys have a ton of respect for him because of that.”
Since a narrow loss at the Minnesota Magicians on Feb. 4, Arvanitis is 5-1 while his save percentage has risen just under two full points. He’s still facing more than 36 shots per game — an average Egan is keen to see decrease — but Arvanitis is stepping up to a big challenge in his first season at the tier-two level.
The same goes for Joe Marcoullier, who started and won both of Coulee Region’s games against Springfield over the weekend.
Both goaltenders will play significant minutes for the Chill down the stretch.
“We want to keep them both fresh and not overwork either one of them, because they’re both playing well right now, and both can win us hockey games,” Egan said. “We’re getting the consistency out of our goaltending that we’ve needed, which has been a real positive for us.
“And that can make us a dangerous team, and it gives our guys a ton of confidence to know that regardless of who’s playing in net, we have someone back there that can step in and win us a hockey game.”
The Chill went just 3-14 over the months of December and January. Entering the home stretch of the season, they were in need of a legitimate spark.
Enter Justin Kendall.
A Holmen native, Kendall spent all of last season with Coulee Region, which led to his selection in the USHL Phase II Draft. He then played 21 games for the Lincoln Stars, for whom he scored five points before his return to the NAHL.
That move provided the very spark the Chill had been looking for.
“He wanted to be able to contribute more for the final quarter of the season, and we were able to offer him that opportunity. And he’s been an absolute diamond for us,” Egan said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Kendall has been lights out since making his NAHL return. Already with a pair of two-goal games under his belt, Kendall is averaging more than a point per game since making his return debut Feb. 10 at Austin, providing additional fire to Coulee Region’s top line.
“He was a player that I think we were missing to help kind of put us over the edge, not only skill-set-wise, but he’s a player that just adds so much in the locker room,” Egan said. “He does so much for us both on and off the ice, and his presence has added confidence in our group.
“I think he was the last piece to the puzzle.”