CEDAR RAPIDS — This is it. The marathon known as the United States Hockey League regular season finally concludes this weekend.
It all began way back in late September, when the 17 league teams made their way to Pittsburgh for their first two games. For the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, it ends with a home game Friday night against Fargo and a roadie Saturday at Central Illinois.
The Flying Aces, based in Bloomington, are going dormant after Saturday night’s game. They drew just over 1,000 fans per game, last in the USHL.
What we know? The RoughRiders are in the playoffs.
What we don’t know? What place they will finish in the Eastern Conference and, thus, who they play in the playoffs and the exact dates of the games.
Cedar Rapids, Chicago and Youngstown are battling for second in the East and a first-round bye: Chicago has 74 standings points to 73 each for the RoughRiders and Phantoms. Muskegon has clinched the division title.
Chicago’s remaining schedule is Friday night at home against Central Illinois and Saturday night at Muskegon. Youngstown plays Friday and Saturday nights at Team USA, specifically the United States National Team Development Program’s younger team.
Team USA played Thursday night against Muskegon. It was five points back of the Riders and four ahead of Dubuque, with both of those clubs playoff bound.
Dates for the best-of-3 first round of the playoffs are April 15, 16 and 17, if necessary. The best-of-5 second round is April 19-27.
If the RoughRiders don’t get a first-round bye, they most likely will play either Team USA or Dubuque, with home-ice advantage.
So ... did you get all that?
The Riders have a 34-21-3-2 record, a nice bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in 2018 and 2017. They have largely played their best hockey of the season down the stretch, a great sign.
Here’s one man’s opinion on this team’s most valuable players:
OVERALL TEAM MVP: Man this is a tough one. It’s impossible to ignore center Nathan Smith’s team-leading point total (50) and his gaudy plus-minus rating (plus-32, which is 18 higher than the next-best on the team). Jason Polin has a team-high 25 goals. Liam Walsh has played in all 60 games and produced 23 goals, 42 points and great leadership as team captain. But my vote goes to goaltender Blake Pietila. He has been a stabilizing force in net, ranking second in the USHL in wins (28), third in goals against average (2.33), fourth in saves percentage (.911) and shutouts (4). You need a good goaltender to win games, and this team has one.
FORWARD MVP: It’s got to be Smith. The Florida native and Winnipeg Jets draft pick has logged copious amounts of ice time, especially the second half of the season, regularly double-shifted by Coach Mark Carlson. Minnesota State is getting a very good player beginning next season.
DEFENSE MVP: Another thing that has made this club good is its defense corps. It is solid and deep. Will Francis leads the USHL in penalty minutes and is a likely NHL draft pick this summer. Mitchell Miller is a commit to national college power North Dakota. Jack Millar is probably the most improved player on the team, from beginning of the season to now. Dmitri Deryabin is subtly good. Kyle Looft has had a very solid season and is an assistant captain. But my vote goes to second-year guy Will Zmolek. He has played in all 60 games and leads the D-corp in points (25, on 4 goals and 21 assists). He provides a good physical presence and sticks up for his teammates.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: You’ve got to have guys like Millar, Miller and Francis on your list. But, to me, it comes down to forwards Grant Silianoff and Aidan McDonough. Silianoff has 18 goals, 23 assists and is plus-14 in 53 games. McDonough has 21 goals in just 48 games. Silianoff is expected to come back next season before heading to Notre Dame. McDonough will depart for Northeastern next season. So let’s just let them split ROY.
l Comments: (319) 398-8259; email@example.com