The Coulee Region Chill aren’t your typical No. 4 seed.
Entering the first round of the NAHL’s Midwest Division playoffs, they don’t feel like an underdog.
“That’s the thing with us. We’re a threat to any team in the league,” said Chill forward Justin Kendall, whose team takes on top-seeded Janesville in the first two games of the Midwest Division semifinals this weekend, beginning with today’s 7 p.m. opener at Janesville (Wis.) Ice Arena.
“We maybe only clinched a 4 spot in these playoffs, but the thing is, we’ve already beat Janesville, and we’ve already beat every team that we’ve played. We’re just a good team. We feel like we can sneak up on teams and they won’t even know it.”
Coulee Region has proven that capability over the past two months.
After falling out of the playoff picture in late January, the Chill have been among the hottest teams in the division; and the entire league, for that matter. A seven-game winning streak in mid-March brought them back into fourth place, while consecutive sweeps of fifth-place Springfield — including an emphatic 8-3 win on March 31 — clinched their third consecutive playoff berth and fourth in six years.
Now, Coulee Region battles a division champion in the first round yet again, needing just three more wins to clinch their first series triumph since 2010-11.
“We have a lot of goal scorers on this team, and it’s starting to show,” said Steven Quagliata, Coulee Region’s highest-scoring defenseman. “We hit a rough patch in the middle there, but we finished the season out strong. It’s a good time to be playing well, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The Jets and Chill are the second- and third-highest scoring teams in the league, respectively, a combination that will almost certainly provide plenty of fireworks over the next two weeks.
Caleb Schroer has been perhaps the league’s hottest scorer the past two months for Coulee Region, averaging more than 1.5 points per game since Feb. 3 en route a team-best 67, good for third in the league. Kevin Dineen — one of five Chill players with at least 15 goals — checks in just behind him with 20 goals and 59 points, followed by Joey Sofo, Coulee Region’s leading goal scorer (27), with 51.
No other NAHL team has more top-50 scorers than Coulee Region (5).
But the Jets aren’t far behind with four of their own, led by rookie Peter Bates. With 24 goals and 32 assists, Bates leads a potent Jets lineup with 56 points on the year. Michael Maloney, Janesville’s leader in goals (25), finished just one point behind Bates for the team points lead. So did Cullen Munson, its assist leader. All three have been instrumental to Janesville’s reign atop the division standings.
“Against a team like Janesville, you’re going to expect to give up a few, so you have to come and score a few,” Egan said. “I like where our goaltending is at. I think that’s helped, too. You give up a bad goal and it kind of takes some things out of our bench, which happened early. I don’t think we’ve had as much of that over the last two months.”
Good goaltending has been another crucial part of Coulee Region’s late-season resurgence. Brad Arvanitis and Joe Marcoullier have both seen plenty of the net in recent weeks, while Marcoullier handed Janesville just its second shutout loss of the year with a 40-save road performance on March 23.
Coulee Region lost five of its first seven head-to-head matchups against Janesville, but has since won three of five — including last week’s 5-4, overtime victory — entering the division semifinals.
“I’ve told this group — and they know what they’re capable of — it’s just like last year. Nobody wanted to play the Chill in the first round of the playoffs. I feel the same way now,” Egan said. “We’ve been one of the hotter clubs down the stretch. We know we can beat anyone.”