CEDAR RAPIDS — There are no moral victories. Just victories.
So that made Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to rival Waterloo before 3,859 full-throated fans at ImOn Ice exactly what it was: a loss for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
But considering everything, every single thing here in this situation, you’d be ignorant not to at least acknowledge this group. This incredibly resilient group.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “I think we’ve been been playing some pretty good hockey for quite awhile. I think they’ve come a long way from the beginning of the year.”
That’s despite all the things that have gone against them. Injuries have hit this group harder than any team in RoughRiders history, and that’s not hyperbole.
Cedar Rapids has lost three goaltenders this season (Shamil Shmakov, Derek Mullahy and Aidan Harper), two National Hockey League draft picks (Shmakov and defenseman Will Francis), a top-pairing defenseman (Ben Meehan), a top forward-line guy (Justin Hryckowian) and another forward (Joe Molenaar) who got in just a handful of games after being acquired in a trade. It has gotten so completely absurd the RoughRiders had to rely on 16-year-old Andrew Pichora to play goal in both games this weekend against one of the USHL’s best and most veteran teams.
It was his league debut. Carlson said he hoped but wasn’t certain Mullahy and Harper would be back at some point this season, so you should probably get used to seeing Pichora, who’s from the Pittsburgh area.
He picked up the win Friday night at Waterloo and played admirably here again, especially considering the circumstances.
“I thought he did tremendous,” Carlson said. “To play a game on the road and a game at home against a team with all that experience, I thought he played very, very well.”
“Obviously tough without both of our goalies, but Geno (Pichora) did a great job,” said RoughRiders forward Max Sasson. “We were down, 4-1, but the coaches kept telling us we were playing well. I thought we took it to them a good amount of the game. Came back, then had a couple of (other) chances. They didn’t go in tonight, but I think if we keep playing like that, good things will come.”
Waterloo scored three second-period goals to take a 4-1 lead, as Sasson mentioned, but the Riders (17-19-5, 39 standings points) carried the play in the third and dang near tied this thing. Ryan Taylor got an early third-period goal for C.R., then Sasson scored with 7:09 left to set up a frantic finish.
The RoughRiders even had two breakaways down the stretch and put 6-on-5 pressure on in the final minute, but Waterloo goalie Gabriel Carrierre bailed out his team. All night, really.
Cedar Rapids is one point out of sixth place and the final available playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with two games in hand on sixth-place Muskegon. The Riders play next weekend against the United States National Team Development Program’s older team, at its base in Michigan.
Oh, by the way, leading goal scorer Nikolai Mayorov missed the third period Saturday night with a shoulder injury. He was wearing an ice pack in the locker room postgame.
“It’s obviously cliche, but it is next-man-in mentality,” Sasson said.
“I don’t want to involve myself in this, but I just think it’s all in how the coaching staff approaches things,” Carlson said. “Then it goes through the leadership group. These guys have worked their tails off all year long. We’ve been right there with everybody. We played a real good hockey game tonight.”
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