Tales from the Trough: ’Hogs finish road trip strong, struggle at home in return

Rockford IceHogs goalie Hannu Toivonen prepares for an incoming shot from Chicago Wolves forward Darren Haydar Sunday, March 13. While on their seven-game road trip, Toivonen backstopped the ’Hogs to a 4-0-1-1 record, including a 28-save shutout performance Friday, March 11, at Milwaukee. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

Rockford had another busy week on tap with four games this week, with three on the road to finish up their seven-game road streak. Through the first four games of the road trip, Rockford finished off 2-1-1-0. The ’Hogs looked to improve upon their road record with three more road games before coming back to Rockford.

After their Saturday, March 5, victory in Lake Erie, the ’Hogs traveled to Canada for their yearly matchups against the Toronto Marlies and the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Despite the Marlies’ second-place standing in the North Division, Rockford and Toronto do not face one another many times throughout the season, so points are not an accurate way to judge how these teams will play against one another. In fact, Toronto’s 78 points is good enough for second in their division, but in Rockford’s heated West Division, Toronto would be in sixth place with four more games played against the lower-ranked teams.

Rockford’s first Canadian matchup would come against the Toronto Marlies Tuesday, March 8.

With a scoreless first period behind them, and a combined total of 24 shots on goal (14 by Rockford, 10 by Toronto), the IceHogs came out quickly in the second. Ben Smith, who had a goal in each game against the Lake Erie Monsters, tallied the first goal of the game only 28 seconds into the middle frame. Shawn Lalonde and Garnet Exelby got credit for assists on the goal.

Toronto would tie it up late in the second with the man advantage. Mike Zigomanis poked one past Hannu Toivonen while on the power play with under 2 minutes remaining in the period.

The Marlies would grab their first lead of the game early in the third with a Juraj Mikus goal.

Smith wasn’t done scoring yet, as he would score his fourth goal in three games midway through the final frame. Brian Connelly and Jeff Taffe played part in the game-tying goal.

Neither team would manage another goal in the last 8 minutes of the third, nor in the 5 minutes of overtime, so we would head to a shootout. Rockford’s last shootout game was Dec. 10, 2010, against Milwaukee, where Rockford lost in the seventh round of the shootout, with two shootout goals. The rust was evident as Rockford was held scoreless in three attempts, and Toronto converted on two of their four attempts, giving the Marlies a 3-2 shootout victory.

After going 37 games without a shootout, the ’Hogs would have two in a row. After their shootout loss to Toronto, the ’Hogs headed over to Hamilton, Ontario, to face the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Similar to the Marlies, the ’Hogs do not face Hamilton very often, but they were familiar with starting goalie Drew MacIntyre, who played the past one-and-a-half seasons with the Chicago Wolves and the Milwaukee Admirals the year before.

Once again, Rockford would get on the board first. Just more than 2 minutes into the game, Bulldogs’ captain Alex Henry was cited for a holding minor, and the ’Hogs would take advantage. Not long ago, it was Taffe leading the way for the ’Hogs, but a newcomer has taken the reins this week: Smith. scoring his fifth goal in five games, Smith converted on the first powerplay of the night.

Hamilton was flagged for three more penalties in the first, but Rockford was unable to capitalize, leaving the score at 1-0 after 20 minutes.

The Bulldogs would answer quickly in the second. Aaron Palushaj netted his 15th of the year, knotting the score at 1-1 with plenty of hockey to be played.

After being tagged for four first-period minor penalties, it was Rockford’s turn to sit in the box. Over the second and third periods, Rockford was tagged for five minor penalties, but the PK unit was working well for the ’Hogs, killing all five attempts.

Toivonen and MacIntyre both played solid games in net, giving up only 1 goal apiece on a combined 77 shots, with Toivonen stopping 44 of 45 shots.

Sixty-five minutes of hockey down, and victor, the game would go to a shootout. This time, the ’Hogs would convert on their attempts. After the first two rounds, Rockford was down 2-1, with Taffe scoring Rockford’s goal. Smith would score the only third-round goal, tying up the shootout at 2-2. With both shooters stopped in the fourth, and Hamilton’s fifth-round shooter being stopped, Brandon Pirri had a chance to win it for the ’Hogs. Pirri picked up the puck at center ice, skated wide right, back to center, deked and threw a backhand shot over MacIntyre for the game-winner.

The last game of the road trip for Rockford took them to the familiar territory of Milwaukee to face the Admirals. Despite being in first place, Rockford has had some success against the Admirals this year, holding a 3-3-1-1 record. Milwaukee had lost three straight home games, and Rockford hoped to continue that streak before heading home.

After serving quite a few penalties in the last few games, Rockford would play a very disciplined game against Milwaukee, committing only two penalties.

Milwaukee would play disciplined as well, only achieving one penalty, but it was that one penalty that would hurt the Ads.

Fifty-two minutes of scoreless hockey had been played, and Rockford was on their first, and only, powerplay. Ads goalie Mark Dekanich fended off a feverish assault of ’Hogs players in front of the net, and the puck was cleared to the Rockford zone. Toivonen rushed from his post and fed the puck up to middle ice to an open Connelly, who took the puck into the offensive zone. Connelly blasted a shot from the point that was blocked off the shoulderpad of Dekanich, right into his mask, and into the back of the net.

With time winding down in the final frame, Milwaukee sent Dekanich to the bench in favor of the extra skater. With 20 seconds left in regulation, Mathis Olimb found a loose puck at mid-ice and sent it across to Igor Makarov for the empty-net goal, securing Rockford’s win 2-0. Toivonen, who had not had a shutout in more than three years, got his third shutout of the 2010-2011 campaign.

Rockford returned home after their successful seven-game road trip to host the Chicago Wolves. It was also the 12th annual Jersey Auction Night for the ’Hogs, with proceeds benefitting the IceHogs Charitable Foundation. Rockford had lost their last two jersey auction games, and hoped to reverse the trend this year.

Chicago would score the first goal of the game while on their first powerplay. Paul Postma scored his fifth goal of the season with a blast from the point, 16 seconds after going on the powerplay.

Rockford would answer back quickly. Rob Klinkhammer won a board battle and fed the puck out toward Ryan Stanton, who stretched out to keep the puck in the zone. Stanton fired a shot toward the net, where who else but Smith, was there to redirect the puck past Wolves goalie Edward Pasquale to tie the game at 1-1.

From there on, the game was all Chicago, who scored four unanswered goals en route to a 5-1 win. Rockford would outshoot the Wolves in the final two periods 30-21, but was unable to convert on any chances. Toivonen, who had been stellar in his last three starts, gave up five goals on 29 shots.

The good news was that the team raised $34,156 in their Jersey Auction Night. A total of 24 jerseys were auctioned off with Kyle Hagel’s jersey fetching the most at $2,800. Smith and Kyle Beach were tied for second, both bringing in $1,400 for their jerseys.

Rockford plays three games this week with the first two at home. Friday, March 18, the ’Hogs play host to the Oklahoma City Barons, and Saturday, March 19, to the Peoria Rivermen for the 10th, and final, time this season. The following day, Sunday, March 20, the team travels to Grand Rapids, Mich., to face the Griffins.

From the March 16-22, 2011, issue

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