Special Teams, Vital Against Wilderness

-David Griswold, La Crosse Tribune

The last time Coulee Region made the postseason, it was a short run.

Three years ago, the Chill bowed out of the playoffs after just three games as the St. Louis Bandits rolled through the series in convincing fashion.

The Chill were outscored 14-1 and were held scoreless on 10 power-play opportunities.

This time around, Chill coach AJ Degenhardt, who is making his postseason debut as Coulee Region’s coach, is doing everything he can to ensure that the power play works in his team’s favor.

“Our power-play has to just have some good chemistry,” Chill defenseman Sean Lang said. “We’ve got some good guys on the power play that can score some goals, we’ve just got to let the puck rip.”

Lang had three power-play goals in the regular season, including one in the Chill’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Wilderness, who will be Coulee Region’s opponent in the best-of-five, opening-round series, which begins at 7:05 p.m. today in Cloquet, Minn.

“Our special teams have been average this year,” Chill defenseman Brogan Rafferty said. “If we want to make a run in the playoffs, we’re going to need to improve on those.”

The Chill finished near the bottom of the league in the power-play during the regular season, scoring on just 14.17 percent of their power plays (fifth worst in the NAHL), but they’ve scored at least one power-play goal in six of their last seven games.

“They’re a physical team,” Degenhardt said of the Wilderness. “We’re going to have to play hard and battle. I’m expecting it to be a real close series.”

The Chill have struggled against the Wilderness this season, winning just one of their eight meetings, but they’ve actually found some success with their power play.

Coulee Region scored seven goals on 35 power-play attempts (20 percent) in those eight games, a big improvement from its season average.

As physical as the games got, combining for 69 penalties over the last two games, special team is likely going to play a key factor.

“They’ve got an Olympic-sized sheet, so there’s more open ice up there,” Degenhardt said. “But when we’re down here playing, I would imagine it’ll be pretty much the same thing you saw (in the final weekend), which is why we need to focus on the power play and penalty kill … because I think that’s going to play a pretty big role.”

The Chill finished near the middle of the pack in the penalty kill this season, but they’ve had trouble containing the Wilderness, who boast the second-best power-play unit in the league (23.98 percent).

The Wilderness scored on 37.1 percent (13 of 35) of their power play opportunities in their eight regular-season games against the Chill, so there will be little room for error as Coulee Region looks to advance past the opening round for the first time since 2011.

“As of late, we’ve been working on it a lot and it’s starting to click a little more,” Rafferty said. “Special teams can make or break you in the playoffs.”

Three seasons ago, the Chill found that out first-hand.