Coulee Region Chill

Coulee Region Chill first-year coach Ryan Egan directs a practice earlier this season at Green Island Ice Arena. The Chill have played fewer games than both Janesville and Minnesota, but are still in the Midwest Division title race.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

The Coulee Region Chill aren’t entirely unfamiliar with their current situation, nor do they seem to mind it.

Last year, the Chill’s playoff hopes were determined by their final three regular-season games, which they played while the rest of the Midwest Division rested as their regular-season schedules were already complete.

While the Chill were the only Midwest team playing in the final weekend, that won’t be the case this year, but it won’t be far off. And that’s the way — uh huh, uh huh — they like it.

Right now, the Chill have played four fewer games than current division leader Janesville, and five fewer than second-place Minnesota. And those games in hand aren’t going anywhere.

“I like that,” Coulee Region coach Ryan Egan said. “We talk about playing from behind and playing with urgency because of those games in hand, and if that’s the case and we keep having success while playing behind them, that’s good for us because it’s better to be chasing rather than being chased. It’s just a mental thing.”

The Chill, for now, have plenty of chasing to do.

By the end of February — 23 games from now — Coulee Region will still have played three fewer games than the Magicians, and four fewer than the Jets. The Chill won’t be level on games played with their division opponents until March, when they’ll play 12 games ahead of their final four regular-season contests in April.

With that in mind, don’t take the current Midwest Division standings too seriously — at least not until April.

After Friday’s games, the Magicians’ lead over third-place Coulee Region shrunk to four. But that four-point lead isn’t what it seems, as the Chill have played just 21 games against Minnesota’s 26.

Do standings really matter with more than half the season still to play? It’s debatable.

Minnesota coach Scott Meyer knows its too early to seriously contemplate standings.

“We’re not thinking about the standings right now,” he said after Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Chill. “Right now, the only thing we’re thinking about is making the playoffs. That’s the most important thing.

“So if we’re third and they’re second, or if we’re first and somebody else is second, or we’re fourth and somebody’s first, you have to beat everybody to get to the Robertson Cup. That’s obviously the goal.

“We just want to get in.”

And to do that, the Magicians will need to secure a top-four finish in the division, which they, and the Chill, will both likely do.

But playoff seeding certainly isn’t irrelevant. Yes, qualifying is half the battle for some clubs, but the difference between second and third place is also the difference between having and not having home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s still early. But right now, the Chill are trending toward the division’s top two seeds, and with wins like the one they got Friday, they’re doing so at Minnesota’s expense.

“Getting a strong start has really helped us,” Coulee Region forward Kevin Dineen said. “I don’t think we want to pay attention to the standings every day, but we’re definitely keeping track. We know where we’re at, and we need to keep improving and keep playing well.”

“Obviously we want to set ourselves up well for the playoffs, but it’s a marathon and not a sprint. We have to continue to find ways to make sure we’re not wearing guys out physically or mentally,” Egan said. “We just want to finish well. We want to continue to get better every day. We’re going to have some peaks and valleys in our season, but ultimately when it gets to March and we have those 12 games, we want to be playing our best hockey so we can put ourselves in a good position.”

It’s still early. But right now, the Chill are trending toward the division’s top two seeds, and they’re doing so at Minnesota’s expense.

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