Coulee Region set to square-off against Midwest champion St. Louis

By Joel Badzinski | LaCrosse Tribune | Thursday, April 5, 2012

ONALASKA — The Coulee Region Chill know they will have to play near-perfect hockey to steal a NAHL divisional first-round playoff series from the St. Louis Bandits.

Midwest Division champion St. Louis, after all, looks like a team with its ticket already stamped to the Robertson Cup playoffs.

The Bandits feature the league’s top scorer in forward Joe Kalisz, a UConn recruit who led an offense that scored 239 goals, second in the league. At the other end of the ice, the Bandits gave up 2.5 goals per game, fourth-best.

The Chill lost 12 of their final 14 regular-season games and finished 18-35-7 overall.

“They’ve had a lot of success, and

we know it’s going to be a challenging series,” Chill interim coach Jake

Fleming said. “From my perspective, you can only worry about the other team so much. It has to be about us coming together, playing as a team, playing smart and winning battles all over the rink. If you worry too much about St. Louis, you’ll find yourself standing around and watching.”

Coulee Region and St. Louis will play Game 1 of a best-of-five series at 6 p.m. Friday in St. Louis.

“Anything can happen this time of year,” Coulee Region forward Jake Useldinger said. “You win one in

St. Louis, you never know.”

Here are three factors that will determine the Chill’s success or failure in the playoffs:

Bury the puck

Scoring was a major problem for the Chill all season. They were shut out eight times and averaged 2.7 goals per game, 23rd in the NAHL.

It was an issue even before two of the team’s top forwards, David Ripple and Tommy Miller, were lost for the season to knee injuries.

Lack of scoring led to too many losses, and Chill ownership fired coach Garrett Strot on March 5.

Fleming, who was promoted from assistant coach, has emphasized the basics — making smart passes, not passing up open shots and crashing the net — to rebuild the team’s confidence on offense.

It might have finally kicked in when the Chill beat Austin 6-2 in their final regular-season game.

“We wanted to end on a positive way and ended up getting six goals,” Useldinger said. “We’ve been struggling to score lately and we got goals from different guys, which was huge. That’s what we’re going to need if we’re going to be successful.”

Useldinger leads the team with 39 points (14 goals-25 assists) while linemate Chris Hughes has eight goals in 21 games since re-signing Jan. 21.

Circle the wagons

Hot goaltending is the traditional formula for a long playoff run.

But Fleming would prefer that veteran goaltender Aaron Davis has a nice, low-key series.

“The goaltending is going to be huge, but we need to help him out,” Fleming said. “We can’t give up 40-50 shots against St. Louis and think we’re going to be successful. We need to stress blocking shots and playing team defense.”

Davis finished the regular season 15-24-6 with a 3.59 goals against average. He was impressive in the 2011 playoffs as a rookie, winning three of four starts.

“He has good experience and hopefully he can use that,” Fleming said.

Davis will have to be a workhorse with backup David Heflin (knee) likely out for the St. Louis series. Greg Ogard, who played in four games, will be the emergency backup, Fleming said.

The Bandits’ high-powered offense will be even more of a challenge for the Chill when the teams play on the Olympic-sized arena in St. Louis.

“We have to play good defense and limit their shots because they’ve got good forwards,” Coulee Region defenseman Eric Drapluk said. “Playing on their ice, they’re used to it and we’re not so that’s going to be a big difference.”

Think positive

Injuries, trades, a coaching change and too many losses made for a tumultuous season.

The Chill have a chance to erase some of that beginning Friday.

“Guys definitely don’t want the season to end earlier than it should,” Drapluk said. “The playoffs is a different type of game, and teams start to turn it on. That’s good for us. St. Louis wants to win, and so do we. They know they beat us (three out of four) and we’re the underdogs and we’ve got to play like it.”