In a regular-season series that has been heavily slanted in Cedar Rapids’ favor, the Dubuque Fighting Saints turned in one of their most complete performances.
Riese Gaber scored two goals and Willie Knierim registered a goal and an assist to reach the 100 point mark in his career as the Saints won, 4-3, on Friday night at Mystique Community Ice Center. The Saints wore specially painted helmets to promote autism awareness and raise money for local autism initiatives.
“It’s definitely good for our confidence, especially if we end up playing them in the first round,” Gaber said. “Its a good step for us. We’re confident we can beat them, and it showed tonight. We would have liked a cleaner ending, but we got the job done. That’s the main thing.”
Knierim scored the first goal of the game and assisted on the eventual game winner. He became just the fifth Dubuque player in the USHL Tier I era to reach the century mark in points.
“It’s a pretty cool thing, but I couldn’t have done it without a lot of help along the way,” Knierim said. “I’ve had so much support from my teammates, my coaches and the people behind the scenes who don’t get enough credit for what they do for us off the ice. It’s a milestone for me, but they definitely should share in it.”
Cedar Rapids had already clinched the regular season series, thanks to winning four of the five head-to-head meetings during the month of February. The RoughRiders entered Friday’s game on a four-game winning streak against Dubuque and won six of the first eight meetings.
Both teams appeared to be in playoff form, at least defensively, during a fast-flowing first period. Cedar Rapids and Dubuque have already clinched postseason berths with one weekend remaining in the season.
Cedar Rapids finished with a slight 7-5 advantage in shots on goal, and neither team enjoyed a Grade A scoring opportunity. Instead, both defenses stepped into shooting and passing lanes to keep the puck to the perimeter and away from Saints goalie Aaron Randazzo and counterpart Blake Pietila.
It took only 29 seconds for the Saints to take the lead in the second period. Knierim muscled his 6-foot-3, 206 pound frame to the front of the net and jammed a loose puck past Pietila for his 17th goal of the season and the 99th point of his USHL career.
Jacob Semik and Matias Maccelli earned the assists on a key goal. In the series, the team that scored first won all nine meetings.
After coming within a eyelash of scoring on their first power play opportunity of the game, the Saints cashed in on the second to take a 2-0 lead just before the second intermission. Gaber wired a wrist shot from the right face off circle off the left post and into the net for his 21st goal of the season.
Dylan Jackson and J. D. Greenway set up the goal, which came just 11 seconds into the power play and with only 12.6 ticks remaining in the period. Dubuque received the power play when Mitchell Miller chopped the stick from the hands of Maccelli behind Pietila’s net.
Dubuque finished with an 11-2 advantage in shots on goal during the middle frame.
Jack Millar pulled the RoughRiders within a goal just 21 seconds into the third period on a shot from the point. His goal came after Dubuque blocked a shot by Jack O’Leary.
The RoughRiders were buzzing after the goal, but the Saints regained the momentum six minutes later. Gaber circled with the puck in the Cedar Rapids zone before carrying behind the net and scoring on a wraparound. Dylan Jackson earned the lone assist on the goal, which required confirmation from the goal judge.
“The message was to stick with the plan” Gaber said of his team’s response. “That’s what the coaches wanted us to do, and we stuck with it. And we were rewarded for it.”
Cedar Rapids made it 3-2 on a Liam Walsh goal at the 10:11 mark. His goal came two seconds after Cedar Rapids’ first power play expired.
Maccelli sealed the win with an empty net goal set up by Knierim with 66 seconds to play in regulation. Knierim earned his 100th career point on the play.
Cedar Rapids got that goal back 40 seconds later by Jason Polin.
“We put a lot of time in this week and went about practice a little differently to revisit some of the things we do and be better at,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “Our coverages were much better, and they weren’t able to expose us like they did the last time.
“We made a lot of progress in terms of minutes played the way we want to play. We’re still looking for that full 60, but luckily we held on tonight.”