CEDAR RAPIDS — Liam Walsh, Jason Polin and Grant Silianoff kneeled in a circle at center ice, their heads bowed, arms around each other, still in uniform. Tears flowed freely from each of them.
The Cedar Rapids Ice Arena had emptied out. It was just them: one last time to cherish each other and the seven-month grind they had just gone through.
A season comes to an end just like that sometimes. In the snap of your fingers.
“I really enjoyed this group,” Cedar Rapids RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson said, after his team’s 4-1 loss Wednesday night to Chicago in Game 4 of this second-round United States Hockey League playoff series. “Walshie’s been here four years, Poli’s been here three years. They have battled tons of adversity. I mean, we had guys puking on the bench tonight. That’s not why we lost. We just battled a lot of adversity all year long. Really proud of them.”
Chicago moves on to play Muskegon in the Eastern Conference finals. The RoughRiders are forced to reflect on a great ride that came to too early of a conclusion.
They went 36-21-5 in the regular season, winning their first-round playoff series in a sweep against Team USA. They met their match here against an opponent that was simply better over these four games.
As Carlson mentioned, an outbreak of stomach flu on the team at the most inopportune time played a factor. Leading point scorer Nathan Smith missed the first two games of this best-of-5 series.
Assistant coaches Ben Kinne and Bobby Goepfert missed Tuesday night’s Game 2. Others played despite being sick.
“You’ve got to credit Chicago,” Carlson said. “They deserved to win. They are a tremendous hockey club. Extremely well coached, a tremendous staff. They’ve just got a real good hockey team. We did everything we could.”
A pair of Robert Mastrosimone goals in the third period put this one away. He and linemates Nick Abruzzese and Neil Shea were great in the series. Goals at the very end and very beginning of periods are particular killers, and that’s exactly what Chicago got to build a 2-0 lead.
Abruzzese scored with just 10.4 seconds left in the first. A neutral-zone turnover allowed Mastrosimone to skate into the RoughRiders zone with speed, with a neat drop pass allowing Abruzzese, Chicago’s leading scorer, a good look in the slot.
Abruzzese beat Cedar Rapids goaltender Blake Pietila to his stick side.
C.R.’s Liam Walsh was whistled for a high-sticking penalty right off the second-period faceoff, just three seconds in. That led to a right-point blast from Chicago’s John Spetz that Pietila got his pads on, though the puck squeaked through them and rolled into the net.
With not much going offensively, the Riders got back into the game late in the second. Polin hesitated and hit speedy Jack O’Leary with a perfect cross-ice pass in the neutral zone, springing O’Leary loose on a right-wing break.
O’Leary went five-hole to beat Chicago goalie Justin Robbins and slice the Steel lead in half with just 1:10 remaining. But that wasn’t enough.
Cedar Rapids has made the USHL playoffs 16 of their 20 years of existence, though this was the first time in three years. Carlson bristled when asked if he felt this group helped re-establish his incredibly successful program.
“We’re about teaching kids. We’re about making them better kids off the ice,” he said. “We’re about improving hockey players. We’re about doing all of those things. So I guess I don’t understand the whole re-establish thing.”
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