Miller, other second-year forwards will be counted on to score

By Joel Badzinski | LaCrosse Tribune | Thursday, September 22, 2011

ONALASKA — The Coulee Region Chill seemed to have a big problem heading into this season. Namely, the departure of the team’s five leading scorers from 2010-11, who accounted for 112 of 204 regular-season goals (55 percent).

Coach Garrett Strot was strangely calm about the whole situation, at least outwardly. Maybe he was secretly pulling his hair out.

No. Strot has a plan that goes like this: The team’s veteran forwards will step into scoring roles. The rookies will take over supporting roles and one or two of them will develop into offensive  weapons.

So far, so good. The Chill went 3-1 at the NAHL Showcase Tournament last weekend in Blaine, Minn., thanks in large part to scoring from forwards Tommy Miller (3 goals-2 assists-5 points), James Hughes (3-2-5) and Jake Useldinger (2-2-4), who  combined for 17 goals all of last season.

“We felt pretty confident that this year we could have an even more balanced scoring attack,” Strot said. “All those (returning) guys were scorers before they came here, and that year of experience makes such a big difference.”

The Chill’s big five last season were Zac Frischmon, Connor Gaarder, Lucas Dillon, Berkley Scott and Micky Knox. 

Frischmon (Mercyhurst) and Gaarder (North Dakota) hooked on with NCAA Division I programs; Dillon and Knox are at UW-Stout and Scott is playing minor league hockey in Knoxville, Tenn.

Strot doesn’t expect Miller, Hughes, Useldinger, Jakob Batcha or Ben Jaremko — all returning forwards who played third- and fourth-line roles last season — to automatically become Frischmon or Gaarder.

“I didn’t really go up to any of them and say ‘You need to score,’” Strot said. “If they play their game, they’re going to score.”

Miller is in his third season of juniors. He split time between the EJHL and AAA Midgets in Florida in 2009-10 and played in 40 games, scoring four goals, for the Chill last winter.

His approach to producing more points this season is straightforward.

“You skate hard and things open up for you,” Miller said. “Knowing you’re asked to score it actually takes a little pressure off, because you’re not worrying about ice time, looking at your stats and seeing you haven’t scored in 20 games.”

Miller centered a line with returning leading scorer David Ripple and Mac Jansen, the team’s first-round draft pick this spring, for three games at the Showcase Tournament.

For all the chemistry they developed in preseason practices, it was satisfying to produce in games.

“We played our game and put some pucks in the net like we were supposed to do,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Hughes played through a hip injury and will not play in this weekend’s series at Chicago.

NOT SPECIAL: The Chill struggled on special teams at the Showcase. They went 3-for-27 on the power play (11 percent) and their 69 percent penalty kill ranks 27th in the league.

In the Chill’s only Showcase loss, a 5-4 decision to Fresno, they went 0-for-7 on power plays and allowed three power-play goals.

“We didn’t prepare much so I’m not totally surprised,” Strot said. “We’ve got to focus on that. It definitely cost us the Fresno game.”


This Weekend's Schedule:

Coulee Region Chill (3-1) at Chicago Hitmen (0-6)

WHEN: 7:50 p.m. Friday, 7:40 p.m. Saturday WHERE: FOX VALLEY ICE ARENA, GENEVA, ILL.