CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hopped on a bus Tuesday and drove through the night some 11 hours for their United States Hockey League regular-season opener.
This was not a trip to Youngstown, Ohio, or some league outpost. Try farther away: Pittsburgh, of all places.
All 17 league teams headed east for the 2018 Dick’s Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic. The entire USHL is holed up at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex from Thursday through Sunday, each team playing a pair of games.
For the RoughRiders, they are Thursday morning at 10 (Iowa time) against Fargo and Friday night at 6 against Lincoln. The Fall Classic has been a preseason event before, but the games count this time.
Word off the street is the National Hockey League kicked in money to each team to defray travel costs and offset the loss of one home game.
“Fired up,” said RoughRiders forward Liam Walsh. “It’s way different with this being the regular season. Two points on the line, it’s just an all-out war on the ice. It’s definitely exciting to have it mean something.”
Especially for Walsh. He’s from Pittsburgh and will have a lot of family and friends there to cheer on him and his team.
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“I’m not sure how many,” he said. “I think they’ll probably try and surprise me when I show up. People from out of town come in, too. I’ll have no idea until I get there.”
The RoughRiders have no idea what their 20th season will hold, but they sound optimistic. Cedar Rapids has failed to qualify for the USHL playoffs two straight years, barely missing out in 2017-18 with a 26-24-8-2 record that left them one standings point behind Chicago for the final spot in the Eastern Conference.
That resonates with the returnees for this year’s club, and there are a lot of them. Eleven players saw time in Cedar Rapids last season.
“I’ve seen a big difference in our compete level in the preseason,” said forward Harrison Roy, one of those Riders veterans. “You can tell that all positions, not just one position, but all the positions, there is way more depth. You can tell the depth right away, which is really good. At the beginning part of the season, everyone is accepting their role and understanding what their job is to help the betterment of the team.”
Besides Walsh (who is beginning his fourth USHL season) and Roy, other returnees include last season’s top-two point getters in Nathan Smith and Marek Valach.
Smith had 17 goals and 47 points in 51 games a season ago and was taken by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft over the summer. Valach had 20 goals and 41 points in 52 games, the Slovakian playing at Boston Bruins prospect camp late in the summer, not getting offered a contract and returning to Cedar Rapids.
Jason Polin also returns up front for his third season with the Riders. Grant Silianoff had a goal in two games last season, was C.R.’s top pick in the 2017 USHL Draft, Phase I, and could be one of the top newcomers in the league.
Kyle Looft and Will Zmolek return on defense with full USHL seasons under their belts. Mitchell Miller and Jack Millar got into two games apiece as affiliate roster callups.
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Blake Pietila won 13 games as a rookie goaltender. Christian Stoever, who played two games with Des Moines, is Cedar Rapids' other netminder.
“I like the group as a whole,” said Coach Mark Carlson. “We have some good depth. A lot will be determined by hard work and coming together. But I do think it’s a good group.”
“We’re all on the same side,” Roy said. “I think experience is usually big. But I also think new guys coming in is also very good for the team. A proper balance is the right recipe, I think. You want experience, so everyone can learn the ropes. We can be examples for the new guys. But you also want the new guys pushing on your back and making you compete.”
One of those new guys to watch for include 16-year-old Russian winger Andrei Bakanov, who signed a pre-draft tender with the RoughRiders last spring and is considered a high-end player. Ben Almquist was acquired in a preseason trade from Tri-City and actually gives Cedar Rapids 13 players with at least a modicum of USHL experience.
After returning from Pittsburgh, the Riders have road games at Chicago and Dubuque before their home opener, Saturday, Oct. 13, against Sioux City.
Valach, Looft and newcomer Aidan McDonough are expected to miss these weekend’s game with injury.
“We’re really a close-knit group. I think you can see that in the room and on the ice how close we are already,” Walsh said. “That’s just going to grow as the year goes on. So I think we’re going to compete every night, and we’re going to stand up for each other. We’re going to make teams earn every inch (of the ice). We’re going to be a fun team to watch all year.”
2018-19 Cedar Rapids RoughRiders roster
Ben Almquist FW (Victoria, Minn.), 19 years old
Adam Backehag D (Gustafs, Sweden), 18
Andrei Bakanov FW (Moscow, Russia), 16
Dmitri Deryabin D (Minsk, Belarus), 18
Will Francis D (Shoreview, Minn.), 17
Chase Hamstad FW (White Bear Lake, Minn.), 19
Joe Hankinson FW (Hopkins, Minn.), 19
Kyle Looft D (North Mankato, Minn.), 20
Evan McIntyre D (Oakville, Ontario), 17
Aidan McDonough FW (Milton, Mass.), 18
Jack Millar D (Westminster, Colo.), 17
Mitchell Miller D (Sylvania, Ohio), 16
Jack O’Leary FW (St. James, N.Y.), 18
Blake Pietila G (Howell, Mich.), 18
Jason Polin FW (Holt, Mich.), 19
Harrison Roy FW (Lakeville, Mass.), 18
Max Sasson FW (Birmingham, Mich.), 18
Nathan Smith FRW (Tampa, Fla.), 20
Grant Silianoff FW (Edina, Minn.), 18
Christian Stoever G (Northville, Mich.), 18
Jordan Tonelli FW (Armonk, N.Y.), 18
Liam Walsh FW (Bridgeville, Pa.), 19
Marek Valach FW (Ilava, Slovakia), 20
Ethan Wolthers FW (Valencia, Calif.), 17
Will Zmolek D (Rochester, Minn.), 19
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