By Miles Regan
Midwest East Division
Chicago Cougars (4) vs. Chicago Crush (5)
All games at Fifth Third Arena
Sat., March 4, 6:40 p.m. CST
Sun., March 5, 1:40 p.m. CST
Mon., March 6, 2:00 p.m. CST (if necessary)
The USPHL’s Windy City rivalry will take center stage during the opening round of the Midwest East division playoffs.
The Chicago Crush are extremely excited and optimistic heading into the playoffs. The first-year USPHL program is one of the youngest teams in the league and many of their players will be getting their first real taste of playoff hockey this weekend. Here’s what Crush spokesperson Joe DiCiolla had to say about the club’s inaugural season.
“The Crush have worked hard to elevate both individual skills and our team game which can be seen in the dramatic improvement undergone in this second half of the season. We can skate with the best teams in the division and are looking forward to facing off against the Cougars in the first round of the playoffs.”
As the lower-seeded team, the Crush could be considered underdogs, but don’t expect them to start fearing their crosstown rival now. The Crush’s first-ever win came in their first visit to Fifth Third Arena, a 4-2 upset of the defending division champion Cougars on October 2nd. Crush netminder Liam Rice [‘03/Evergreen Park, Ill.] was fantastic in that one, sending a message to the rest of the league by way of a 61 save effort. DiCiolla says Rice is prepared to perform at the top of his game this weekend.
Crush captain Nick Zehelein [‘03/Hoffman Estates, Ill.] will be relied upon to get his squad through to the next round. Zehelein had a phenomenal regular season and scored four (2-2–4) points against the Cougars during the year. Fellow forwards Logan Fernandes [‘05/Lisle, Ill.], Spencer Kauke [‘05/Rockford, Ill.], Cam Krause [‘05/Channahon, Ill.], and Zach Wolf [‘05/Plainfield, Ill.] will be expected to bring the speed needed to get by a veteran Cougar defensive group.
The Cougars may have dropped the first crosstown matchup in October, but the perennial power has gotten the best of the new kid on the block ever since. The Cougars won the regular season series 6-1. The defending Midwest East champions will need to win two of the next three to keep their hopes of advancing to Nationals for a sixth-straight season alive.
The Cougars took fourth in the division this year, finishing the regular season with 56 points. The Cougars got off to a bit of a slow start but have been playing their best hockey as of late. They earned at least one point in 13 of their last 15 games and know better than anyone that the key to a deep playoff run is peaking at the right time. They seem to be well on their way.
Contrary to that of their neighbors, the Cougars roster is littered with experience. Ten of their current players dressed during Nationals a season ago, including leading scorer TJ Haas [‘03/Hartland, Wisc.] Haas scored 50 (21-29–50) points during the regular season and is regarded as one of the Midwest East’s best centermen. Gerdas Paulaskas [‘04/Lisle, Ill.], Kevin Maisells [‘02/Westminster, Colo.], and dynamic midseason add Johan Karjalainen [‘03/Helsinki, Fin.] round out the Cougs’ 40-point club.
On the blueline, Danny Determann [‘02/Franklin Park, Ill.] leads the division’s best penalty kill unit. The Cougars killed 87.8% of their opponents’ power play opportunities and surrendered just 19 power play goals all year. Netminders Jack Coleman [‘02/La Crosse, Wisc.,] and Sebastian Wigfield [‘03/Newcastle, Eng] have been consistent on the back end all year long and are expected to split the series.