The Springfield Jr. Blues made their home debut for the 2011-2012 season a memorable one. Stung by a shutout at Janesville and reeling from a 1-3 record at the NAHL Showcase and a season opener involving a 6-2 drubbing by the St. Louis Bandits, the Jr. Blues limped home with a 1-6 record. Their recently-hired head coach, Ryan Hardy, also departed on Sept. 29 for reasons unknown outside the team and staff. (Out of respect for the privacy of those involved, I'm not going to speculate on if it was a firing, forced resignation, voluntary resignation, or any other circumstance. It might be great for gossip, but I've got no idea how gossip will help a team down on its luck.) Their latest opponent would be the recently-realigned Coulee Region Chill.
The Coulee Region Chill is new to hockey fans in Springfield. They're now division rivals as a result of realignment within the NAHL due to relocation of the Motor City Metal Jackets (now the Jamestown Ironmen) and the addition of three teams: the Minot Minotauros, the Odessa Jackalopes (a former CHL franchise) and the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings (an NAHL returnee not seen since the Jr. Blues' first season in 1993). Based in Onalaska, WI (that's near LaCrosse, home to Old Style Beer) the team made 3rd place out of 6 in the old Central Division and were eliminated in the 2nd round of playoffs for the Robertson Cup. Less than half of last year's team returned for the Chill, but they managed a respectable 4-2 start before meeting the Jr. Blues.
With that in mind, the game itself was a powerful statement of what the team could do when motivated under acting coach Joe Dibble and acting assistant coach Jason Power. These are the same guys who rallied the Jr. Blues to a 16-5 end-of-season record and barely missed a playoff berth. Would they be able to make that kind of magic so early in the season? This is going on a sports website, so the answer is clearly a resounding yes.
Period 1 started with the Jr. Blues trapping the Chill in their own zone for almost 17 minutes. The 6:35 mark found Jr. Blues Captain Stewart Bell squaring off in a fight against the Chill's Captain, David Ripple. Bell tried out the Cam Janssen Style of Fighting: take lots of punches, then tear into the worn-down opponent. It didn't work so well as it does for Cam, so the fight wound up a draw. A high stick by Ryan Jaremko took returning Springfield defenseman Ben Kramer out of the game with a nasty gash across the lip and a few missing teeth. Jaremko was going for the puck in mid-air when he lost situational awareness, causing the high-sticking and the resulting penalty. Penalties would not play into the scoring until the second period. The first goal of the game was scored at 19:47 in the 1st Period by the Chill's Ben Jaremko (assisted by Jake Useldinger and James Hughes). Despite the grinding, trapping and hard work of Springfield players in the first, Coulee Region scored first. It was beginning to look like a lot of other Jr. Blues games this year in that early scoring could break the team's coherence.
Period 2 stood that idea on its head and made it spin. At 2:52, Chris Sitler answered Jaremko's goal with one of his own, assisted by linemates Josef Pontasch and Kyle Cook. At 4:42, the Chill broke down for the night. One of the players in a mass of Coulee Region bodies tripped Springfield forward Mike Williams from behind while Williams had no defenders between him and the goaltender. A penalty shot was taken by Williams and the Jr. Blues were up by 1. Brett Skibba added an insurance goal for the Jr. Blues at 8:15 (assists by Mike Parnell and Cody Dixon), followed up by a second Sitler goal shortly thereafter at 8:50. Springfield led at this point 4 to 1.
Like I said above, Penalties didn't play into the game until the second period. Matching unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were handed out to David Ripple and Mike Parnell at 9:29. Someone got under the Jr. Blues' skin about something. I don't know what it was, but they picked the wrong day to anger this team. With both teams at 4 on 4, Stewart Bell showed that the C on his chest didn't get awarded just for fighting. At 10:41, he fired off a beauty of a top-shelf goal on Chill goalie Aaron Davis, assisted by fellow Jr. Blues veterans Ethan Nauman and Shayne McLaughlin. This goal gave a little spark to the Chill, who retaliated at 10:54 with a goal from Ross Luedtke, assisted by Jakob Batcha. At 12:40 Skibba, Parnell and Coulee Region's Useldinger all wound up in the box for elbowing, roughing, and/or unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing the Jr. Blues at one point to kill a 5-on-3 penalty. The period ended at 5 to 2 in favor of the Jr. Blues.
Compared to the second period, the third period was much tamer with a return to the grinding inside the Chill's zone once more. Dominic Valencia scored the sixth tally for Springfield at 13:41 with assists by Paul Byrne and Taylor Rehm. Penalties were far fewer, with Garret Strot receiving a Too Many Men minor penalty at 7:00 and Mike Williams and David Ripple receiving cross-checking penalties at 16:22 and 16:53 respectively. The Jr. Blues won their home opener 6 to 2 and raised their record to 2-6-0. Coulee Region dropped to 4-3-0, with neither team moving in the current standings.
Friday's game is one of those games you want to take a first-time viewer to see: it was filled with all kinds of penalties to explain, beautiful goals, and drama on the ice resulting in a clear winner. Stewart Bell wears the C well, providing leadership to the Jr. Blues through muscle and skill. If the Blues can keep this fire lit, they'll be able to hand losses to the Bandits and Jets this year in equal measure.
The Jr. Blues' next game is Saturday October 1 against the Coulee Region Chill. Game time is 7pm at the Nelson Center in Springfield, Ilinois.