CHIPPEWA FALLS, WI — With 30 of 60 regular season games complete, the Chippewa Steel have reached the midway point of the NAHL season and will turn their attention to making a push for the playoffs. At 16-12-2, they currently sit fourth in the Midwest Division and ever so slightly in a postseason spot.
“With a young team, the goal was to be in the mix at Christmas,” Steel head coach and general manager Casey Mignone said. “We’ve done that. I think we’ve done a nice job cementing ourselves in the race.”
Since opening day, the Chippewa Steel have been amongst the top teams in the midwest. They started their season going 3-1-0 at the NAHL Showcase, setting high expectations right off the bat.
Chippewa has been tested both physically and mentally. With injuries to key players and a plethora of roster changes, the Steel have relied on depth and determination to sustain success.
“It’s a grind,” Mignone said. “We’re looking to play more than 30 games this second half. Hopefully we can be well prepared based on things we learned about ourselves in the first half.”
The campaign has had its fair share of memorable stretches. The Steel have won three straight games on three separate occasions. Once to start their season, another late October in Alaska, and the most recent coming in the beginning of December.
While still in prime position for the Robertson Cup Playoffs, Mignone knows consistency needs to be a major focus in the new year.
“It’s the age-old question for coaches… how can we find a way to be at our best every night?” Mignone said. “Where it starts is being hyper-focused on our habits and in our details. Hopefully the lessons we have learned will allow us to do that.”
The Steel have been a well-balanced team, with all players serving important roles. At the midway mark, Kade Nielsen is Chippewa’s leading scorer with 28 points in 30 games. Matthew Brille, Sam Rice, JJ Grainda, and Joe Kelly round out the top five, each north of 17 points. The full stats can be found here.
The Steel are seeking more production from the backend in the second half of the season. In fact, just eight of Chippewa’s 95 goals have come from defenseman. Shawn Ramsey leads all defenseman in points with one goal and 10 assists.
“We have to work on our ability to do things a little quicker from back there”, Mignone said. “We have a lot of defenseman that have good skill and possess pucks well. It’s about getting pucks on net from the point and being more assertive in their game.”
The Steel have most recently added Tomas Trunda, Logan Cleary, and Sam Frandina through trades and transactions. All three have had an immediate impact and the hope is they will be key pieces down the stretch.
In goal, Adam Gajan and Carter Wishart have split time. Both have committed to Division 1 programs this season and have shown flashes of dominance at their best. Gajan (Minnesota-Duluth) has a .920% and Wishart (Colgate) has a .907%.
Gajan in particular has accumulated a number of accolades. In October he was placed on the NHL Central Scouting’s Prospect Watch List. He is currently with Team Slovakia in the World Junior Championship. Most recently, Gajan was loaned to Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) but plans to be back in the new year.
One area Mignone hopes to improve is on the power play. It sits seventh in the Midwest Division at 15.2%. The key going forward is converting their opportunities into timely goals.
“I don’t think it’s for lack of chances or zone time,” he said. “It’s a fickle thing, the power play. Sometimes being patient is the best tweak you can make.”
18 of Chippewa’s last 30 games are on the road. In January, they will make two trips to Janesville and play four games. Between March and April will be the Steel’s second plane ride to Alaska. They will play a three game series against Anchorage before another visit to Fairbanks.
“I think our travel is the best in the division, if not the entire league.” Mignone said. “I think being on the road allows the guys to focus on the task at hand and take out some of the distractions. I’m excited to get on the road and see if we can get on some winning streaks.”
Chippewa is looking to make a postseason appearance for the first time in the organization’s history. They were slated to make the playoffs in 2020 before COVID 19 shut it down.
Over the course of the season, Chippewa Valley has shown its incredible support. The team mantra is to “Rally The Valley” encouraging fans to pack Chippewa Area Ice Arena in support of the team. Not only has attendance improved, but the atmosphere has made a difference. Promotions such as YMCA night, Military Appreciation Night, and Teddy Bear Toss night have not only brought in great crowds but also have given back to the community.
“The Chippewa Valley is as loyal and passionate as they come,” Director of Marketing Kyle Cannillo said. “What makes this community special is the people. It’s been a fun journey since I’ve been here and I’ve enjoyed seeing the growth.”
On Dec. 31, the Steel will bring in 2023 with a bang… literally. The first 100 fans will receive boomstick noise makers presented by Wilson & Smith Carpentry. The game is at 5p.m.
For fans and folks around the organization, the hope is the team can continue striving towards a playoff berth in the new year.
Stay connected during the season by following the Steel @chippewasteel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and online at chippewasteelhockey.com.
The Chippewa Steel are members of the NAHL which is the oldest and largest junior hockey league of its kind in the United States and one of only two USA Hockey-certified leagues that operate under the non pay-to-play model. The NAHL is also one of the best at advancing players to NCAA and professional hockey. All league games are viewable via HockeyTV. For more information, visit chippewasteelhockey.com.