CEDAR RAPIDS - This one feels good.
The club didn't make it last season, a rarity under head coach/general manager Mark Carlson. It hacked and wheezed its way to the Christmas break this season, forcing Carlson to make personnel changes.
Trades and scouring the lower-level North American Hockey League for talent provided a new mix of players. It was a mix that clicked.
"I think it's a great accomplishment for our guys," Carlson said. "It was one of the goals we had at the beginning of the year. We certainly had to overcome an awful lot of things this year. Not only injuries, but other challenges, we'll say. I thought our guys did a tremendous job of being mentally tough and coming together as a team."
The RoughRiders (33-20-3) take 69 standings points into their weekend series at Youngstown. That's good for second place in the Eastern Conference, though Dubuque is just one point behind and has a game in hand.
It's almost a certainty the Eastern Iowa rivals will meet in the first round, with it just a matter of which team will have home-ice advantage. It should be a fun series.
"It has been a lot of hard work," said RoughRiders forward Dylan Steman. "We're a gritty team, battle through everything. We're a team that loves each other a lot and plays for each other."
"All the guys have jelled," said RoughRiders forward Judd Peterson. "It's a great locker room to be in. When you have a 'team,' that's when you succeed. That's when you go far and stuff."
The new players have made an impact, especially forwards Frederik Tiffels, Mitch Maloney, Andrew Gaus and Brennan Sanford. Danny Tirone has taken over the No. 1 goaltending spot and played very well.
Carlson sent team captain Dylan Gareau to a club in his native Canada and installed third-year defenseman Nathan Widman as new captain. He made Corey Petrash and Dylan Steman assistant captains.
Normally, the team votes on the prestigious positions, but not this time. The change in leadership has worked.
"I don't want to say it was anything that I did," Carlson said. "We brought in what we thought were the right type of people. You look at everyone we brought in, from Logan Von Ruden to Mitch Maloney to Brennan Sanford to Andrew Gaus to Frederik Tiffels, they are all really good people. They want to work, want to get better. They understand team first. They've been very good on the ice in addition to that, no matter if they've had a few points or a whole bunch of points.
"They've all contributed to our team. I credit the group for welcoming them and working with them, and I credit them for coming in and doing their job."
The RoughRiders took a significant hit this week when defenseman Ivan Provorov left to return home to Russia. But they say it won't affect them.
"We're still focused on the next game, the next day, pushing for second place," Steman said. "We want that. Making it to the playoffs definitely feels good. Not making it before, I'm excited for it. Anything can happen once you get there."
"Our approach never changes," Carlson said. "Everybody laughs about it, but it's true. We've got a game Friday. That's what we do. Last Saturday's game, we didn't talk about clinching or anything. There were two points available, and we wanted to get them."