Fresh is the operative word this season for the Chaska boys’ hockey team.

Wednesday evening will find the Hawks playing in their first section final since 1996-97. Their 8 p.m. game against Class 2A, Section 2 opponent Eden Prairie at 3M Arena at Mariucci was made possible by a semifinal upset of No. 1 seed Prior Lake.

“These section playoffs have become our state tournament in a way because this is pretty new to us in Chaska,” coach Dave Snuggerud said. “Getting to a final is completely new to me as a coach and a player.”

Seven players in the freshman and sophomore classes, all of them in their first season of high school hockey, contributed to the defeat of Prior Lake.

And the whole season turned when coach Snuggerud changed his philosophy when it comes to playing defense. As in, the Hawks finally started playing some.

Losing 8-3 on Jan. 7 at St. Louis Park convinced Snuggerud to alter his preferred “run-and-gun” style. The Tuesday night loss to the Orioles left Chaska with a 5-8-1 record. The rollout of a fresh emphasis on defense began at Wednesday’s practice.

“I had to buy-in myself,” Snuggerud said, half-joking. “Because watching guys make a play with the puck – that’s the way I like to coach.”

Chaska’s improved defense is about working to win back the puck in all three zones, not a wholesale structure change.

“This has nothing to do with running a trap,” Snuggerud said. “It’s about being aggressive and anticipating when you don’t have the puck.”

Chaska is 11-1-1 since the change.

This type of success was expected last season, when Mike Koster, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, led an offensive attack that featured forwards Rhett Pitlick and Blaine Warnert.

Replacing the trio is a batch of youngsters with solid credentials. Several of them helped Chaska/Chanhassen win the Peewee AA state championship in 2017 and finished as Bantam AA state runners-up in 2019.

Freshman Jimmy Snuggerud, Dave’s son, leads the team with 19 goals. Sophomore Zach Seltun ranks third with 14 goals. And freshman goaltender Carter Wishart has played all but 35 minutes this season.

Coach Snuggerud credited his senior captains Calvin Barrett, Shane Lavelle, William Magnuson and Nick Olmscheid as well as seniors Bauer Barry and Owen Thomas for their leadership.

“You come in the locker room and the language is great and the culture is so fun,” Snuggerud said. “It’s a good environment for our younger guys.”

Snuggerud estimated his fresh faces needed 15 games to get comfortable with the varsity level. Game No. 15, a 7-1 victory against New Prague, started Chaska’s second-half surge.

“Our young guys needed experience against guys who are shaving,” Snuggerud said.

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