By Todd Reicher
For the final time this season, the IceHogs had four games in five days.
The first of these four games in week 25 was Wednesday, March 23, at the MetroCentre against the San Antonio rampage. The Rampage are still very much in the playoff hunt, but their play did not reflect their standings in the division.
Rockford’s Jeff Taffe started the scoring for the ’Hogs halfway into the opening frame. Jassen Cullimore tracked down a loose puck in the offensive corner and fed Brandon Pirri on the opposite side of the ice. Pirri left the puck in the corner for Taffe, who circled up around the near face-off circle, and shot a quick wrister over the shoulder of Rampage goalie Matt Climie for the 1-0 lead.
Ryan Stanton would add to the lead exactly 2 minutes later. San Antonio’s Jeff May fought for the puck behind the Rampage net, and sent it around the boards for a clearing attempt. Stanton kept the puck in the zone and immediately threw the puck toward the net, which sailed past an unsuspecting Climie.
San Antonio would cut into the ’Hogs’ lead midway into the second period, while on the power play. Garrett Stafford did a good job keeping the puck in the zone, and found Dane Byers, who put a shot in on Hannu Toivonen.
The initial shot was blocked away to the far side, but Matt Watkins grabbed the rebound and put it past Toivonen, who was out front contesting the previous shot, and couldn’t get back in position quick enough.
Ben Smith, who has been red-hot since his return from injury a month ago, extended the lead back to 3-1 later in the second. Brian Connelly took the puck into the zone and found Mathis Olimb streaking toward the near side of the net.
Olimb drew in the defense, and Climie, to commit to the play, and at the last second, Olimb passed across the front of the net to Smith, who found a wide-open net, and tipped in the pass for his 16th goal of the season.
The ’Hogs would extend their lead to 4-1 early in the final frame. Igor Makarov scored his 10th of the season off a great pass from Peter LeBlanc, which was similar to the pass in the second from Olimb to Smith. The power-play goal came on their second opportunity of the game.
Another quick goal gave Rockford a 5-1 lead off the stick of Stanton, for his second of the game, third of the season. Both Rob Klinkhammer and Pirri put shots on the net, which Climie turned away. On the last shot, Stanton found the puck out front and put it past Climie for the goal.
Friday, March 25, the ’Hogs hosted the Hamilton Bulldogs for their second, and final, meeting of the season. Up until their last meeting March 9, the ’Hogs had never beaten the Bulldogs.
Hamilton drew first blood in the first period with a goal from Neil Petruic, and seemed to control the pace for the rest of the period, outshooting the ’Hogs 12-8.
Makarov put the ’Hogs on the board in the second period to tie the game at 1-1. Kyle Hagel took a shot on goal that Drew MacIntyre couldn’t handle, and Makarov picked it up and tipped it home.
Rockford would take the lead for the first time in the game with a score from Klinkhammer. The ’Hogs were racing into the zone with a two-on-one rush led by Taffe, who passed the puck to the opposite side to Klinkhammer. The pass was fumbled at first by Klinkhammer, which fooled MacIntyre to go down early, and Klinkhammer recovered quickly and slid it past MacIntyre for the goal.
The ’Hogs’ next goal was a thing of beauty, created by a hard-working Makarov. The Bulldogs had a power-play opportunity, and lost control of the puck in their offensive zone. As the puck was heading back to the Bulldogs’ zone, Makarov chased it down with a defender in tow.
Both players fell to the ice, and Makarov quickly got to his feet to corral the puck in the corner. A second Bulldog defender rushed to the near side of the net, and no one picked up a streaking Evan Brophey on the far point. Makarov snapped a pass to Brophey, who buried the one-timer for a 3-1 lead off a shorthanded goal.
But Hamilton would even things up in a hurry. In a span of 43 seconds, the Bulldogs would score two goals and even things up 3-3, which would be the score at the end of regulation.
For the second time this year, we would have an extra 5 minutes of hockey. Those full 5 minutes of hockey never took place, as Taffe would seal the win for the ’Hogs in overtime. LeBlanc poked a puck out of the defensive zone and grabbed it just over the defensive blue line.
As he raced down the far wing, Taffe took to the center and got behind the defense. LeBlanc made a perfect pass onto the stick of Taffe, who deked and slid the puck between the pads of MacIntyre for a thrilling 4-3 overtime win.
Rockford fans would be in for another thrilling game the following night against the Milwaukee Admirals. Most of the thrills came from Toivonen, who played one of his best games of the year.
Toivonen, who has had an up-and-down year, shut out the Admirals in their last meeting, and was just as good, if not better, this game. Toivonen would stop 44 of the 46 shots he faced, and rightfully earn first-star honors for the game.
The two goals he let in were because the defense was not able to clear the puck from the zone.
Pirri put the first goal on the board near the middle of the first period. Taffe and Klinkhammer worked in sending the puck behind the Ads net, which was misplayed by a Milwaukee defender.
Pirri showed his quick hands by snatching the puck and wrapping it around quickly from the back of the net, beating Atte Engren, who was getting his first professional start.
The Ads would answer quickly, tying the score at 1-1. Andreas Thuresson netted his 11th of the season when he slammed home a pass from in front of the net. Rockford couldn’t get hold of the puck in the zone, as it was bouncing out front, and Milwaukee’s Kelsey Wilson flicked the puck to his left to Thuresson for an easy goal.
In the second frame, Pirri would get his first professional multi-goal game, putting the ’Hogs back ahead 2-1. Cullimore created pressure, and a check in the defensive zone to set the puck loose, where rookie Dylan Olsen grabbed the loose rubber and raced across the defensive blue line. Olson found Pirri on the right wing, and the ’Hogs came across the line in numbers on a three-on-two rush.
With the middle of the ice clogged, Pirri elected to fake a shot, deke left, and release a quick wrister, which fooled Engren, giving Rockford a 2-1 lead.
Milwaukee would tie things up again midway through the final frame. Not to be outdone, Thuresson would notch his second goal of the game with hard work in front of the net. A shot by Wilson was initially blocked down by Toivonen, but the defense was pushed back and could not locate the puck. Thuresson poked at the pile and found the puck, which slid by Toivonen, knotting the score at 2-2.
For the second time in as many nights, the game would go to an extra session, thanks in part to stellar play by Toivonen keeping Rockford in the game. After three periods, the ’Hogs were being outshot 44-19, yet were still in the game.
Midway through the extra session, Cullimore took possession of the puck and moved it up to Connelly in the defensive zone. Connelly took the puck all the way to the offensive zone and, uncontested, snapped a shot to the right corner of the net, past Engren, for the game-winning goal.
The following afternoon, Sunday, March 27, the ’Hogs would do to the Wolves as the Admirals did to them the previous night. Rockford outshot Chicago 22-6 in the opening frame, yet the score was tied at 1-1.
Mathis Olimb put the first score on the board with his eighth of the season off a rebound from a LeBlanc shot. The powerplay goal was Rockford’s first opportunity of the game, and the only man-advantage they would score on.
The second period was similar in shots, but had different results. After two periods, the ’Hogs were outshooting the Wolves 36-12, but held the advantage on the scoreboard, 3-1, off two reviewed goals.
Smith blasted a shot at the net, off another LeBlanc shot yielded a rebound, and the shot was fired so hard it went off the back of the net, came back out, and almost went in again after bouncing off Wolves netminder Edward Pasquale. After review, the goal stood, and Rockford reclaimed the lead.
Late in the second, Klinkhammer added to the lead with his 14th goal of the season, one shy of his professional best. Taffe set up Klink with a nice pass, which hit the blocker of Pasquale, but trickled past him before he could catch up to it, giving the ’Hogs a 3-1 lead after two.
Chicago cut into the lead in the third, bringing the score to 3-2. Carl Klingberg tallied his first goal of the season off a pass from Jason Krog, and backhanded it past Alec Richards.
Despite being outshot 11-4 in the final frame, Rockford held on to win 3-2, and finished outshooting Chicago 40-23.
Rockford will disembark onto a four-game road trip before coming home Friday, April 8. On tap next week is a Wednesday, March 30, game against the red-hot Lake Erie Monsters.
Rockford then travels to Oklahoma City to face the Barons Friday, April 1, and then on to Texas to play the Stars Sunday, April 3. Rockford winds up their road trip Tuesday, April 5, in San Antonio against the Rampage.
From the March 30-April 5, 2011 issue