CEDAR RAPIDS — Was this the last hockey game this season at The Stable?
“No,” Davey Middleton said quickly and emphatically.
Of course, that’s what the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders winger and the rest of his teammates are supposed to say, even though the odds are considerably stacked against them getting back here and hosting a USHL playoff game.
A two-goal third period allowed them to skirt past Muskegon, 2-1, Friday night. They’ve got their regular-season finale at Waterloo Saturday night, then will hit the road for what they hope is a full week.
Their entire best-of-3 first-round playoff series is at Youngstown beginning Monday because of the 11-hour distance between the cities and because the Phantoms are seeded higher. They somehow survive and it’s straight to either Indiana or more likely Green Bay to play the first two games of a best-of-5 second-round series.
“We’re certainly going to do our best to get back here,” RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson said.
You could tell this game’s insignificance by the way the Riders (27-20-12, 66 points) played most of it. That’s not to say they didn’t care or didn’t want to win, but the first two periods were not exactly played sharply or with optimal energy.
“It’s human nature, and I don’t usually say things like this, but the guys know they are staring at the possibility of five games in six nights,” Carlson said. ”Their compete (level) wasn’t where it should have been, but you’ve got to be realistic. They found a way to get it done.”
Perhaps the best thing to happen was a disallowed goal in the final 25 seconds of the second period. Nick Saracino stripped a Muskegon defender in the Lumberjacks slot and fired a wrister that appeared to go in and out of the top of the net.
But the goal light never came on and referee Brady Johnson immediately signaled no goal. That appeared to fire up Coach Carlson – who appeared to lay into Johnson as they left the ice after the second period – and the RoughRiders, who got a game-tying goal from Middleton at 4:03 of the third and a Riley Bourbonnais power-play goal 2:32 later.
“That was a tough call,” Middleton said. “We were struggling there the first two periods. We weren’t moving our feet, were a little slow. But we worked through it, battled, came back and got the victory.”
“The guys kept working, and the third period was obviously our best,” Carlson said.
The RoughRiders drew 87,168 fans for their 30 regular-season home games, an average of 2,906. That’s slightly down from last season’s average of 2,979 but still considerably ahead of 2009-10’s average of 2,616.