A weekend that started with frustration ended with the Dubuque Fighting Saints showing their resolve and adding another chapter to their rich history.
Five different players scored goals and 12 different players registered points as the Saints handled Central Illinois, 6-4, on Sunday afternoon at Mystique Community Ice Center to clinch a USHL playoff berth for a ninth consecutive season. Dubuque owns the longest active playoff streak, while Waterloo has the second-longest streak at just four.
The Saints had chance to clinch earlier in the weekend but dropped a 6-3 decision at Cedar Rapids and suffered a 6-0 home loss to Des Moines. They were a different team Sunday.
“It was just about settling down and getting back to what we do, which is skating and transitioning quick. Putting up that many goals tonight proved we’re a different team than we showed the last couple of nights,” defenseman Jacob Semik said. “There are still a few things we want to clean up, but we’re happy with the end result. Clinching a playoff berth is a huge deal to us and the organization.
“We’re a resilient group. We’re all connected and we believe in each other. Even when things get hard, we stick together. That’s something we pride ourselves on.”
Logan Pietila gave Dubuque a 1-0 lead with a power play goal at the 18:56 mark of the opening period. Just nine seconds into the man advantage, Semik and Matias Maccelli worked the puck from the perimeter to Pietila in the slot. Pietila made a nifty move to create a better scoring opportunity, then backhanded a shot past goalie Ryan Snowden for his 13th goal of the season.
Seconds later, Willie Knierim ripped a slap shot from the right faceoff circle that handcuffed Snowden but did not trickle far enough to cross the goal line. At the other end, Saints goalie Matthew Thiessen denied Colby Enns a golden scoring opportunity from point blank range to preserve the lead.
“It feels great to finally clinch because we’ve kind of been struggling the last few games,” Pietila said after the Saints snapped a four-game losing streak. “It’s nice to have a good strong push and put a lot of goals on the board in a game like this so we could clinch.
“We’ve been playing hard and battling, but things weren’t going our way, and pucks weren’t going in the net. We did a better job of executing tonight. It feels great to be going to the playoffs again. We won a round last year, and hopefully we can go further this year.”
The dynamic line of Ty Jackson between Riese Gaber and Dylan Jackson completed a slick passing sequence that resulted in a 2-0 lead. Gaber threaded a pass though the crease to Ty Jackson, who scored his 14th goal of the year on a tap in at 2:18 of the second.
Central Illinois cut its deficit in half 7:15 into the second period with a 5-on-3 power play goal by Cal Kiefiuk.
But Dubuque regained it seven minutes later with another tic-tac-toe passing sequence. Semik joined the rush from his defense position to score a backdoor tap in off a Pietila feed. Maccelli also assisted on Semik’s second goal of the season.
After another push from the Aces, the Saints scored what appeared to be a dagger in the final minute of the period. Chris Lipe made a nice play to hold the puck in the zone and fed Cooper Haar on the right wing. Haar centered the puck to Derek Contessa, who ripped a slap shot into the top right corner of the net for his 10th goal of the year and a 4-1 cushion.
Bram Scheerer extended the lead to 5-1 with a second-effort goal after Snowden robbed him on the initial attempt at 10:33 of the third. Kaelan Taylor assisted on Scheerer’s fifth goal of the year.
Philippe Lapointe got that goal back less than three minutes later with a doorstep rebound goal. But the Saints returned the favor at the 15:48 mark, when Haar and Patrick Smyth set up Contessa for another backdoor tap-in to make it 6-2.
“From previous experience, we know you can never give up or think you have a game won too early,” Contessa said. “Teams in the USHL are so good, you can’t take anything for granted. You have to keep pushing the entire 60 minutes. Good things happen if you do.”
Kiefiuk and Bradley Marek scored in the final 1:38 of regulation for the Flying Aces.
“This was a real good bounce back after the last two nights,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “It’s hard to play at 3 o’clock on a Sunday and it’s hard to string together the kind of execution it takes to score six goals. Our guys did a great job in a tricky scenario.
“We have our work cut out for us. We’re not going to worry about the playoffs yet. We have to worry about where our feet are now. That means working to get better and refining our game so we can win in the playoffs.”