Record-setter Ross Colton hopes to keep goals coming in playoffs for RoughRiders

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CEDAR RAPIDS — He put masking tape around it, enscribed with the specifics of its significance. That’s what hockey players do with special pucks until they figure out how they want to permanently display them.

“It’s just sitting in my room right now,” Ross Colton said. “I’ll bring it home. I’m sure my mom will want to do something with it. She’s all into stuff like that.”

It was the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders winger’s teammates and assistant coach Shane Connelly who yelled at the officials for the puck after Colton scored a goal last Saturday night in a regular season-ending win at Sioux City. It was his 35th, setting the club’s single-season record, something the Robbinsville, N.J., resident was a little slow at realizing.

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “I didn’t want to think too much about it. Coach let me know that ‘Keep playing your game. If goals happen, they’ll happen.’ If we are getting (a win) at the end of the night, I could (not) care less how I do. As long as I’m helping the team, I’m fine with whatever.”

‘Whatever’ turned into a dream season. Colton, 19, became just the fourth RoughRiders player to hit the 30-goal plateau, surpassing Jacob Cepis’ previous record of 34 in 2006-07.

Colton finished second in the United States Hockey League in goals, behind only Rem Pitlick of Muskegon (46). He essentially doubled his numbers from a season ago in virtually every important category: goals (18 to 35), assists (15 to 31), points (33 to 66) and plus-minus rating (plus-14 to plus-32).

He had a hat trick and five points midseason in the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and went from a National Hockey League non-thought to ranked 89th among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s final list of 2016 draft-eligible players.

That means he’ll very likely be picked by some team this summer at the NHL Draft. In short, Colton’s progression has been striking.

“When I hit 30, some people really started tweeting at me and stuff like that,” Colton said. “I didn’t really want to look into it, put too much pressure on myself. I talk to my dad all the time, and he said just don’t worry about (the record). He just told me to make sure you are doing whatever you have to do to get ready to play. Coach, too, always said to just play my game and the goals will come. That’s what I tried to do.”

“I’d say it’s just been his hard work and dedication,” said linemate Hugh McGing, who has formed a strong friendship with Colton as his billet brother the past two years. “Coming to the rink every day and working hard. He gained a lot of weight over the summer, gained a lot of upper-body strength. That helped him out with his shot. His shot is really hard. It’s nice for me because I get to pass to him.”

RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson agreed with McGing, saying Colton’s emergence has been in large part because of his dedication to offseason training.

“Hockey players are made in the summer,” Carlson said.

Colton has signed with the University of Vermont but said his future beyond this season is in the air, not wishing to go into details. It’s difficult to imagine him returning to Cedar Rapids next season but there appears to be that chance.

The RoughRiders, fresh off clinching the Anderson Cup for most regular-season standings points, begin their best-of-5 playoff series against Bloomington this weekend at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Games 1 and 2 are Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, with a 7:15ish opening puck drop.

Cedar Rapids finished the regular season with a 40-15-5 record to Bloomington’s 36-18-6. The RoughRiders won three of the four regular-season games between the teams, though they haven’t met since Dec. 30, despite being Eastern Conference mates.

Each club has a standout goaltender: Ben Blacker for Cedar Rapids (33 wins, 2.24 goals against average, .926 save percentage and five shutouts) and Hayden Lavigne for Bloomington (26 wins, 2.26 GAA, .914 save percentage and four shutouts).

“We haven’t seen them in awhile, but from what I remember, they are just a hard-working team,” McGing said. “They are kind of systematic, I’d say. They throw pucks around, so we’ve just got to get in on the forecheck and make sure we can keep it in their zone. If we can do that, I think we can win.”

“Bloomington is a very good team, very deep,” Carlson said. “For sure, one of the more experienced teams in the USHL. Very solid team ... We’ve had some very good games against them. So it’s going to be a tremendous battle.”

Inside the Matchup

Overall Records — Cedar Rapids 40-15-3-2, 85 points. Bloomington: 36-18-5-1, 78 points

Home Record — Cedar Rapids: 21-8-1-0. Bloomington: 16-9-4-1

Road Record — Cedar Rapids: 19-7-2-2. Bloomington: 20-9-1-0

Head-to-Head — Cedar Rapids won series, 3-1.

• October 30, 2015: Bloomington 4, Cedar Rapids 3

• November 6, 2015: Cedar Rapids 4, Bloomington 3 (OT)

• November 21, 2015: Cedar Rapids 6, Bloomington 3

• December 30, 2015: Cedar Rapids 6, Bloomington 4

Leading Scorers — Cedar Rapids: Ross Colton, 66 points (35G, 31A). Bloomington: Tarek Baker (20G, 29A) & Jeremy Davies (13G, 36A), 49 points each.

Leading Goaltenders — Cedar Rapids: Ben Blacker, 33-13-2-2, 2.24 GAA, .926 SV%, 5 shutouts. Bloomington: Hayden Lavigne, 26-9-1-1, 2.26 GAA, .914 SV%, 4 shutouts.

STORYLINES

• This series features two of the top goaltenders in the USHL. Both Blacker and Lavigne have won multiple USHL Goaltender of the Week awards. Lavigne has two to his name, and Blacker has won the award a season-high five times.

• Bloomington has taken points in five of its last seven games, while Cedar Rapids comes into the playoffs on a two-game winning streak.

• This is Bloomington head coach Dennis Williams’ first playoff appearance as a USHL head coach, as well as the first playoff appearance for the Thunder in club history.

• This is Mark Carlson’s 15th playoff appearance in 17 seasons as the bench boss in Cedar Rapids. The RoughRiders are looking for their first playoff series win since the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, as well as their first Clark Cup title since 2005.

• Bloomington’s Jeremy Davies was the only defenseman in the USHL this season to lead his team in scoring.

• The league’s best power play (Bloomington) will go head-to-head with the league’s best penalty kill (Cedar Rapids). Both teams rank top-5 in the respective categories.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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