RoughRiders captain Riese Zmolek leads club through tough season

C.R. loses late to Sioux City, 3-2

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Riese Zmolek is the captain of what will be the worst team in Cedar Rapids RoughRiders history, but that shouldn’t reflect one bit on his two-year tenure here.

He has been a rock-steady defenseman for the Riders, tough enough to return from offseason hip surgery to make a difference. Softer spoken but a positive influence on all of his teammates.

“I think he has been a tremendous leader for us on and off the ice,” Riders Coach Mark Carlson said, after his team’s tough 3-2 loss Saturday night to Sioux City at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. “He battled through having to have surgery and getting a late start. He leads by example, which is the most important way. He’s also vocal and very, very well respected. I think he has been great for us on and off the ice all year long.”

Zmolek pinched in from his spot at right defense and backhanded a puck past Sioux City goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks 45 seconds into the third period to put Cedar Rapids on top, 2-1. It appeared that edge might just hold, but the Musketeers lead the United States Hockey League in standings points for a reason, scoring back-to-back goals 1:25 apart late in the period to win.

Sioux City is 31-9-7 for 69 points, three up on Waterloo. Cedar Rapids dropped to 9-35-4.

“I’m just extremely proud of our guys,” Carlson said. “I thought maybe we played our best game of the year. We worked our tails off, really competed, did the difficult things. I’ll have to look at the tape, but somehow a couple of pucks kind of found their way through the slot. But I am extremely, extremely proud of our effort tonight against a team with a real good record and an absolute ton of returning players.”

C.R. deserved a better fate here, at very worst playing its opponent dead even. The ending was typical of a frustrating season.

Close but no result.

“We’re getting better each day,” Zmolek said. “We played really well, and I thought Sioux City played well, too. Hats off to them. We keep going in the right direction, which is a positive thing. We just have to keep it going that way and keep getting better every day.”

Zmolek was asked how difficult his job as captain has been considering everything. This is a young RoughRiders team, and losing so much can beat a team down.

Especially if you were on an Anderson Cup winning club, as Zmolek and assistant captains Zac Robbins and Ben Foley were last season. Justin Cole, who scored the Riders’ first goal, and Trevor Zins are the other holdovers.

“Yeah, there have been ups and downs, but the guys have been doing a real good job of helping me out,” said Zmolek, who will play next year at Minnesota State. “Everyone is doing their job, keeping their spirits up. It’s not like I have to do a lot of that, especially with Robbins, Foley and (recently named assistant captain) Dalton (Messina) helping out with that, too. That’s always good.”

Odeen Tufto had two goals for Sioux City, including the game-tying one with 4:59 left. Phillip Knies won it with 3:34 remaining, converting a pass through the slot from the corner by teammate Aapeli Rasanen.

The Riders were able to keep highly touted Musketeers winger Eeli Tolvanen off the score sheet. He is expected to be a first-round NHL draft pick this summer.

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

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