-David Griswold, La Crosse Tribune
It’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.
The old adage is typically in reference to a two-goal cushion, but the Coulee Region Chill are approaching their 2-0 series lead over the Minnesota Wilderness with the same level of vigilance.
“You want to definitely keep the foot on the gas pedal,” Chill forward Adam Lovick said. “Coming back to our place, we don’t want to let up because (the lead is just) two games and anything can happen in playoffs. We definitely have to stay level-headed and keep focused.”
The Chill (30-23-9, 2-0) had no issues with that last weekend when they took two from the Wilderness (39-17-6, 0-2) in Cloquet, Minn. Minnesota had Coulee Region’s number in the regular season — winning seven of the eight meetings — but last weekend belonged to the black and blue.
The Chill outscored the No. 5 offense in the NAHL 7-3 in the first two games despite being outshot 60-39.
“They do get a lot of shots but some of them were from the perimeter,” Chill defenseman Sean Lang said. “It starts with good gaps and good sticks and leading them to the outside. We were also getting in lanes and the forwards and defense were blocking some good shots, too.”
The game plan will be the same this weekend. The one difference, however, will be their physical play.
Northwoods Credit Union Arena — the home of the Wilderness — is an Olympic-sized sheet of ice, which is roughly 10 feet wider than the standard-sized surface at Green Island Ice Arena. Less space. Less room to roam.
“We know what they’re going to do. They’re going to play hard and they’re going to play physical. That’s one of the strengths of their team,” Chill coach AJ Degenhardt said. “We’ve got other strengths within our team and we’ve got to stick to our plan.”
One of those strengths has been the Chill’s top line, which has scored three of the team’s seven goals this postseason.
“Our line’s great,” said Lovick, who has a team-leading two goals in the postseason. “They open up a lot of space.”
Lovick has played with Richard Zehnal for most of the season but Dominik Florian, a first-year forward from the Czech Republic, was recently inserted into the top line and is quickly solidifying his role one of the top team’s top scorers.
Florian has eight points over his last nine games, including two assists in the playoffs.
“He’s a big guy and he plays a really big role,” Lovick said of his linemate. “He’s fast, he’s big and he can get around guys. He definitely helps us.”
Zehnal also has two points this postseason — one goal, one assist — but it’s been Lovick leading the way with five points.
The NCAA Division I Bemidji State recruit is one of just two players to have five points in two games — Janesville’s Mitch Fossier has five assists.
“At the end of the day, your best players have to be your best players when the game’s on the line,” Degenhardt said. “You need guys that put up point to put up points, and you need some second-hand contributions from other lines and we got those (last) weekend.”
The Chill have completely tilted the ice. The Wilderness, who finished 19 points ahead of the Chill in the regular-season standings, will need to steal two games on the road to extend their season to a fifth game.
Minnesota hasn’t fared nearly as well this season on the road (17-9-4) as it had at home (22-8-2) but it’s played well at Green Island. The Wilderness are 4-0 in La Crosse and outscored the Chill 18-7 in those four games.
Degenhardt, however, admitted that the team may have been lacking some motivation the last time these two teams met at Green Island.
“To be honest, we played harder (last weekend) than we have for the last month and a half,” Degenhardt said. “I don’t know if a little bit of that was complacency with us being locked into third (place in the Midwest Division standings) or what. … I think they just eased up a little bit down the stretch.”
This time, a second-round playoff berth should be all the motivation the Chill will need.
“We’ve got to get this win (Friday),” said Lang, who has three assists in the postseason. “We’ve got to keep it to less games. … We’re not going to be changing anything up (from last weekend). We’re definitely going to be going hard.”