Riese Gaber had a little extra chip on his shoulder for the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ regular-season opener Thursday morning.
Gaber scored a goal and added an assist as the Saints jump-started their 10th anniversary season back in the USHL with a 4-1 victory over Muskegon at the Fall Classic in suburban Pittsburgh. The defending Eastern Conference champion Lumberjacks eliminated Dubuque in the second round of the playoffs last season.
“This was a big game for us,” Gaber said. “Muskegon is always a good club, and the way it ended for us last year is still a little tough for a lot of us, so getting that first win, especially against them, was really important for us.”
Mark Cheremeta contributed a goal and two assists and Ty Jackson set up a pair of goals to lead the offense, which rallied from an early 1-0 deficit. Buffalo Sabres prospect Erik Portillo turned aside 22 shots in his first USHL victory. He withstood several flurries as Muskegon tried to mount a comeback.
“It’s all about having a great group of guys in front of me,” Portillo said. “That was the key for me. We’ve been looking forward to this game and getting off to a good start. We had a good preseason, and it’s nice to take that with us into the season and get the win.”
Muskegon’s Christophe Fillion scored the lone goal of the first period by jumping on the rebound of an A.J. Hodges shot at the 6:24 mark.
“But not one guy changed his mindset when we got scored on,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “Nobody looked embarrassed. Nobody blew a gasket. We just kept talking the same way and playing the same way. We had an an even first period, but we got a very skilled goal to get it started, and we kept going from there.”
It took Dubuque until the 5:09 mark of the second frame to tie it on a goal by Gaber. Wyatt Kaiser broke the puck out of his own zone to Cheremeta along the left-wing wall. Cheremeta carried into the attacking zone and flipped a pass to an area in front, and a hard-charging Gaber tipped it past goalie Noah Giesbrecht.
“We’re a very confident team, and we know what we’re capable of,” Gaber said. “We stuck to the game plan and knew it was going to eventually come. Once it did, the floodgates opened. That first goal gave us some confidence, and we didn’t look back.”
Later in the period, the Saints scored a pair of goals in a 30-second span to take the lead.
The first came on the game’s first power play after Nash Nienhuis hauled down Jimmy Glynn. Ty Jackson won a face-off in the neutral zone to Braden Doyle, who returned the puck to him. Ty Jackson carried along the left wing before passing to twin brother Dylan Jackson in the slot. Dylan Jackson wired a wrist shot inside the far post for a 2-1 lead.
Then, Gaber stick-handled his way out of trouble along the left-wing wall and gave the puck to Cheremeta at the top of the face-off circle in the Muskegon zone. Cheremeta found Matt Kopperud all alone in front, and Kopperud deked Giesbrecht out of position before tucking the puck into the net for a 3-1 advantage.
“They definitely came out flying, but we stayed together as a team,” Cheremeta said. “We started moving pucks, playing with each other, and we started connecting for a couple of really good goals.
“It was vital for the season and even for this trip, which is kind of a long one, to get things started on the right foot. Hopefully, it sets the tone for the rest of the season.”
Dubuque sealed the victory with an empty net goal. Ty Jackson pressured the puck deep in the Muskegon zone, and Cheremeta found the empty net with 1:19 remaining in regulation.
The Saints play Madison this morning before returning home.