CEDAR RAPIDS — Marek Valach just shrugged. It didn’t seem like a stupid question, though perhaps it was.
Why, Valach was asked Thursday afternoon, did he decide to play last weekend with a fractured index finger?
“Because I’m a hockey player,” the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders winger said, giving you a puzzled look.
Fair enough. Broken bones, cuts to the face, a loss of teeth, taking slapshots to the skate, leg or arm, none of that stuff seems to keep guys out of the lineup in this tough-as-nails sport.
Just because he endures pain by simply holding a stick isn’t going to keep Valach away from his team when it’s fighting for its United States Hockey League playoff life. These games matter, and he’s playing.
That’s all there is to it.
“I wanted to play, didn’t like sitting out,” said Valach, his club’s second-leading scorer. “We all want to get into the playoffs.”
Will they get there?
“Of course,” Valach said, with another one of those looks. “If you don’t think we’re going to make it, you’re a loser.”
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Cedar Rapids goes into its final two regular-season games one standings point behind Chicago for sixth place and the final available playoff spot in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The RoughRiders host Des Moines (Friday night at 7:05) and Madison (Saturday night at 7:05).
Chicago has a home game and road game versus Central Illinois this weekend. Tiebreakers favor the Steel, so the Riders essentially need to win both of their games and hope Central Illinois (the worst team in the league) can beat Chicago in regulation once or in overtime or shootout twice.
The margin of error here is incredibly small.
“Game by game,” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “We play Des Moines on Friday. That’s all it is, all it’s ever been, all it will be. We just focus on one game at a time.”
That his boys still have a chance to get to the postseason makes Carlson proud. The RoughRiders have been a beaten-up team since the preseason and played the past two weeks with a short-handed forward lineup.
That included rolling with just nine forwards, two centers, for much of one game. Cedar Rapids should have a full complement of 12 forwards this weekend, as affiliate player Grant Silianoff (the top pick of the 2017 USHL Draft, Phase I) is in town.
“I think our guys have done a fabulous job of what to stay focused on, sticking with it, listening and battling, improving,” Carlson said. “I think they have come a long, long way, maybe more so than any other year. I don’t want to mention names because I’ll forget somebody, but you look at the individual improvement of a lot of guys this year, the way they have impacted games has been great.
“When all of a sudden, you have guys who are starting to pass other guys, that is such a positive to me.”
Carlson was asked who he felt his team’s MVP was, and, after a bit of prodding, finally mentioned center Graham Slaggert. The North Dame commit has 17 goals and 20 assists in 51 games, but his worth goes far beyond the stat sheet.
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“You know me, I’m not really into that stuff,” Carlson said. “But I’d have to say Slaggs has logged a ton of ice time. You look at a guy who has played on the power play, double shifted on the penalty kill and also has been able to take key faceoffs in every situation. You look at how responsible he is. He has done an awful lot of good things. Some of those nights where we were so short-handed, he was playing 25 minutes a game sometimes. As a forward. He has been a tremendous player for us.”
When asked about his core of defensemen, Carlson mentioned two names, specifically. “When you look at the blue line, the one thing you think about is the improvement of Jake Johnson and Kyle Looft,” he said. “I think Johnson over the past month has really turned the corner. He is playing with tremendous confidence.”
This whole team seems to be doing the same right now. They hope they get the chance to continue playing after this weekend.
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