Minor League Sports

Goalie Blake Pietila off to hot start with Cedar Rapids RoughRiders

18-year-old hoping for successful second season

Goalie Blake Pietila defends the goal as Nathan Smith (13) and Adam Bäckehag (6) run a drill during practice at media day at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Goalie Blake Pietila defends the goal as Nathan Smith (13) and Adam Bäckehag (6) run a drill during practice at media day at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — There is superstition in hockey.

The afternoon nap before home games is an example. Guys just have to have one.

Not allowing your goaltender to be interviewed when he’s going good is another. At least for Cedar Rapids RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson.

He wasn’t thrilled when someone asked this week if it was cool to speak with Blake Pietila for a story. The second-year netminder has been great in his club’s first four games, winning three, allowing just six goals and posting a shutout.

After a little prodding, Carlson finally relented, telling a reporter it would be his fault if Pietila didn’t play well in C.R.’s home opener Saturday night against Sioux City. Fair enough.

The odds are the 18-year-old Michigander will be just fine.

“It has been the defense in front of me, actually, the whole team, blocking shots, sacrificing everything, laying out,” said Pietila, deflecting credit as deftly as he uses his blocker to steer a shot toward the corner . “When pucks do get through, I can see them and everything. They’re clearing pucks to the corner, covering their guys, so it makes it easier for me.”

Pietila held his own as a United States Hockey League rookie last season, improving steadily and posting a winning record in 32 games. He inched his goals against average down to 3.03 by season’s end and his save percentage up to .902.

Credit his teammates, as he said, for his hot start in the early going here. And his confidence.

“I learned last year (there are) quicker releases, I learned how fast the pace of the game is,” Pietila said. “This year, really, it kind of almost slows down and that helps me out. Everything is just as fast, but you can almost predict what’s going to happen. It almost feels like you’re a step ahead of it.”

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New RoughRiders assistant coach/goalie coach Bobby Goepfert said he has had that discussion with his pupil. Goepfert played two seasons with Cedar Rapids before embarking on good college and professional careers.

He understands how the game changes in your second year in the league.

“That first year, it’s almost like you’re just trying to keep up,” Goepfert said. “Everything is going a million miles an hour. The second year, you have that confidence in your game. The game is a little bit slower, you’re able to manage the zone, manage the flow of games. You’re almost a step ahead of it. I think, so far, with his play, that’s pretty evident.”

Pietila is a Michigan Tech commit who has a twin brother, Logan, who is a forward with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He isn’t the biggest kid around (5-foot-10 and 165 pounds), the opposite size of today’s prototype goalie.

But Goepfert said he is sound technically and has something every good goaltender has to have.

“You learn a lot when you’re around him, and the biggest thing I think I’ve noticed is the competitive part,” Goepfert said. “Not just that I was that kind of goalie, too, but the position at its core, you have to hate to give up goals. You have to hate losing. You saw that from him in the preseason, when he lost, 1-0, to Dubuque, and to Waterloo in a shootout.

“It might sound easy, but it’s rare. I’ve played with guys, been on teams where it’s like ‘Well, hey, I did my job.’ That wasn’t Blake. He was mad he gave up that one goal, mad that he lost. That’s the kind of basic element that every goalie needs to have, and he’s got it. You can’t teach it. That’ll make him successful throughout his career.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.co

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