116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Granted, the vast majority of teams in the United States Hockey League end up qualifying for the postseason. It’s 12 of 16, or 75 percent.
But the Des Moines Buccaneers didn’t get in this year. Neither did the Sioux Falls Stampede or Green Bay Gamblers.
They had teams a year ago, some sort of base to build upon for 2021-22.
The United States National Team Development Program didn’t make it, either. It gets the pick of the litter player wise when it comes to the 16-to-18 age groups.
So appreciate these Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and what they have been able to accomplish. A 4-3 overtime win Saturday night over Dubuque in the regular-season finale at ImOn Ice meant the Riders picked up standings points in more games than they didn’t.
The final record was 29-29-2-2, the points total 62. They went a scalding 23-6-1-1 at home.
And they’re in the playoffs. A best-of-3 first-round series against the Muskegon Lumberjacks is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, if necessary.
“These guys have just been incredible, as far as how hard they’ve worked,” said Coach Mark Carlson, in a jubilant RoughRiders locker room. “We’ve been battling tooth and nail since Sept. 24 in Pittsburgh (for the first game), you know what I mean? They just keep getting better.
“To me, this team really personifies the city of Cedar Rapids. This team goes to work, this team is tough, this team sticks together, this team helps one another, they stick up for each other. Everything you think about our city, this team personifies it.”
The RoughRiders sat out last season because their home rink was destroyed by the August 10, 2020 derecho. Players on that team, which was expected to be a good one, went to others in a league dispersal draft.
Cedar Rapids has just four players with prior USHL experience, and one of those, captain Adam Flammang, had just six games of experience. None of the defensemen or goaltenders on this team had played in a league game before.
Not only that, but the RoughRiders ended up having to pick last in both of last year’s USHL drafts per league decision. You can imagine how that sat with Carlson.
“For me, with what we went through and not playing last year ... (then) it was decided we were going to pick last in the draft,” Carlson said. “Our team, we were built for last year, we had tons of experience. The way the rules were, we didn’t get a lot of guys back, which was fine. Then when the decision was made that we would pick last in both drafts, that really motivated us, our staff.”
If there is one player this playoff appearance means more to, it’d have to be forward Nate Hanley. He was taken by Youngstown in last year’s dispersal draft, got traded to Green Bay, and returned to Cedar Rapids this season.
He played the 2019-20 season with the RoughRiders, a season that got canceled in the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic began. He also was with a 2018-19 RoughRiders team that made it to the postseason.
This is coming full circle.
“It is super exciting,” Hanley said. “The beginning of the year, no one besides us was expecting much from us. Here we are, winning games left and right. I think it was just a lot of hard work ... We’re working harder than every other team, so that’s going to help us in the long run, obviously, as it has right now.”
Cedar Rapids got the game’s first goal, from defenseman Travis Shoudy, late in the first period. Dubuque tied it before period’s end.
Jake Percival put Cedar Rapids up 2-1 early in the second, only to have Dubuque come back and tie it again late in the period.
Hanley’s ninth goal this season, scored early in the third period, looked for a long while that it would be the winner. But Dubuque tied it yet again, 3-3, on a goal with 2:56 left in regulation.
The Riders had to kill off a penalty at the end of regulation and were given a shortened power play of their own in overtime when a Dubuque penalty was called with .9 left.
On that 4-on-3 man advantage, defensemen Brendan Fitzgerald and Will Brenner played catch out top and around Dubuque’s triangle penalty kill. Brenner saw teammate David Chen set a screen in front of Dubuque goaltender Paxton Geisel and let go with a shot from the right point.
It got through Geisel’s pads to end it 1:24 into the extra session. That was Brenner’s very first USHL goal, believe it or not.
“I was giving it back and forth with Fitz,” the native Oklahoman said. “I saw a nice screen from Chen. I was shooting for a tip, actually, but it went in straight. It was awesome.”
“That’s been the story of the team,” Carlson said. “He has continued to get better, he has continued to work. He was in and out of the lineup at times for a little bit here and there. He stayed positive, kept working and has just done a tremendous job. He earned his way into that position at that time in the game.”
And the RoughRiders have earned their way into the USHL playoffs.
“It was a team game tonight, we all played really well,” Brenner said. “We deserve it. We deserve to go to Muskegon. We’re excited.”
“Everybody just has a strong desire to win,” Hanley said. “We’re so tight as a team. It’s just exciting to be around.”
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