CEDAR RAPIDS — Going into this United States Hockey League season, it was the defense corps that was the most inexperienced part of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
Yet as we meander into February, defending has been a constant for this club. Just look at this weekend, which concluded Saturday night with a 3-1 win over Green Bay at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
The RoughRiders picked up a pair of victories, allowing just one goal. Counting a tough loss Wednesday night, Cedar Rapids gave up three total goals in three games this week.
It came into the day allowing the third-fewest goals in the USHL. Obviously, it’s not just the defensemen who get credit for those numbers.
It’s goaltenders Blake Pietila and Troy Kobryn. It’s the forwards as well.
“I think in practice we work a lot in the D zone,” said RoughRiders defenseman Will Zmolek. “We make sure guys are covered, just that kind of stuff. I think that helps a lot. The D zone leads to offense. I think we do a good job with that.”
“Blake and Kobes have done a nice job,” RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson said. “I think we are paying attention to detail. We have a long, long way to go, but I think we’ve done a nice job defensively.”
Pietila darned near had back-to-back weekend shutouts. Sam Huff’s bad-angle goal with 1:53 left spoiled that, but not the positive vibes in the victorious locker room.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Aidan McDonough scored into an empty net with 12.3 seconds left for the final margin, moving the RoughRiders to 19-15-4, their 42 standings points placing them in a tie for third place in the Eastern Conference. Though Green Bay goalie Maxim Zhukov was out of net, it was technically a power-play goal, one of three in the game for Cedar Rapids.
Jason Polin scored with 3:17 left in the second period, capping a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play. Nathan Smith threw the puck cross ice to the goal line in the corner to McDonough, who threw one cross-crease to Polin for the tap in.
He has 18 goals this season, 11 on the power play. Liam Walsh’s nifty tip of a Zmolek point shot gave Cedar Rapids a 2-0 lead midway into the third.
“I did not know that, but I know it now,” Polin said, when asked if he was aware of his power-play prowess. “A goal’s a goal. I have to give credit to Smith, McDonough, all the guys on our power play. They are the ones who set me up. I am just there to put the puck in the net.”
The Riders have a home-and-home series this coming weekend against Dubuque. They beat Dubuque at home on Friday night, 2-0, and are two standings points up on the Fighting Staints.
“We’re improving,” Carlson said. “As we go, we’re learning what it takes. Both really tight games this weekend, a play here and there. So we are encouraged with with how we’re getting better throughout the season. We just have to stay with it, day by day and every week.”