CEDAR RAPIDS — He’s the only guy on either team that has anything remotely close to United States Hockey League playoff experience.
Liam Walsh was with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the 2015-16 season, when they lost to Bloomington in a thrilling five-game Eastern Conference semifinal series. He didn’t play, but just being around was enough to make him appreciate how the intensity level goes up a notch or eight.
“There is definitely a difference from the regular season, yeah,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to bring it every night. The season is at stake, so you’ve just got to do all the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.”
The RoughRiders host the United States National Team Development Program’s U-17 team in the first game of a best-of-3 series Monday night at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Game 2 is Tuesday night at The Stable, with an if-necessary Game 3 scheduled for Wednesday in town.
It’s a 7:05 puck drop all three nights.
“Just one day at a time,” Walsh said. “Just take care of business tomorrow. Do our thing, play our game. That’s all you can really do.”
This is the first playoff appearance in three years for the RoughRiders, who wrapped a quality regular season Saturday night with a 3-0 win at Central Illinois. Cedar Rapids went 36-21-3-2, their 77 standings points placing them in a third-place tie in the Eastern Conference with Youngstown, one point behind second-place Chicago.
Youngstown got the third seed in the division because it had two more victories that didn’t come via shootout. The Phantoms and Dubuque play in the other Eastern Conference first-round series.
Muskegon and Chicago earned first-round byes.
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“I think our guys did a real good job (in the regular season),” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “I think we faced a ton of adversity throughout the year, but our guys answered the bell an awful lot. They’ve really come together as a team. I am really, really proud of them. Extremely proud of them. I have told them that numerous times. Now we’re on to Game 1 of the playoffs.”
The RoughRiders beat the younger of The Program’s two teams all three times they played in the regular season, though two wins came in a shootout. Team USA is young but skilled.
Cedar Rapids got a 30-goal season from forward Jason Polin and a team-high 53 points from center Nathan Smith. Goaltender Blake Pietila accumulated a 30-13-3 record, a 2.30 goals against average and .912 save percentage.
In his fourth season with the Riders, Walsh finished with 25 goals.
“He had a real good year,” Carlson said of his captain. “He has really grown over his time here. Played in all situations for us. As important, if not more important than all that, is I think he has been a tremendous captain for us. Great in the room and great on the ice. He has done such a superb job in the community, leading up our community service. I can’t say enough about him.”
“I definitely had some struggles early on in my career here,” Walsh said. “So just to be able to come back and end on a note like that is pretty awesome. I’m looking forward to the playoffs here, for sure.”
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