CEDAR RAPIDS — Getting into the United States Hockey League playoffs after two years away from them was the top priority for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
That’s been accomplished, so it’s time to try and tackle the next priority. Getting a first-round bye.
“Now that we’re in the playoffs, we want to put ourselves in the best position possible,” goaltender Blake Pietila said Wednesday night, after the Riders beat Chicago in overtime, 1-0, at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
Aidan McDonough’s wrist shot with 2:08 left in the three-on-three extra session ended a tightly-played affair that reminded you of playoff hockey. It moved Cedar Rapids past Youngstown alone into third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference and within two standings points of the second-place Steel, with a game in hand.
Muskegon likely has first place secured, eight points ahead of Chicago. The top two teams in each division won’t have to play in the first round of the postseason.
The RoughRiders have seven regular-season games left, including one Friday night at home against Dubuque.
“We don’t talk about the standings too much, to be honest with you,” McDonough said. “But one of our goals is to get a first-round bye. To get into the playoffs and get a first-round bye. So, yeah, I think we have a bye in the back of our minds, and we’re going to do everything we can to get home ice (advantage).”
“It is really, really hard to get in, so anytime you get in, you’ve got to be excited about it,” RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson said. “You’ve got to congratulate your group and everyone involved. It is hard to make the playoffs in this league. So we’re excited about that, but, as well, we have set high goals for our team, and that is really only one step. There is no sitting back. We’ve got a lot, a lot of work to do.”
McDonough’s winner was his 20th goal of the season, a heck of an accomplishment in the USHL, especially for a first-year player. That he has played in only 43 games makes it even more impressive.
The Northeastern University signee took a pass from Jason Polin, skated into the faceoff circle on the right side and deposited a shot past Chicago goaltender Justin Robbins.
“I had just gotten on the ice on a change, and Polin kind of came up to the blueline, made a real nice play in delay,” McDonough said. “I just got the puck and went wide. Shot it low blocker.”
“He is a heck of a hockey player, has improved immensely from the beginning of the year,” Carlson said. “If an NHL team drafts him this summer, they are going to be really happy ... He is equally as impressive as a human being and as a teammate.”
Pietila had 23 saves for his fourth shutout of the season. He was rock solid, with his teammates doing a terrific job in front of him, keeping at bay a Chicago team that is second in the USHL in goals.
“It felt like a playoff atmosphere tonight,” he said. “They’re a good team, so we knew it was going to be tight. That’s how it’s going to be in the playoffs, one-goal games. We’ve got to be ready at all times. Everyone was ready tonight.”
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