Hockey: ’Hogs end season with season-high five-game win streak

Tales from the Trough

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

Although the Rockford IceHogs had been eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in their AHL existence, the team had a chance to spoil the postseason for a few teams.
In the last week of the 2010-2011 AHL season, the IceHogs had four games in six days, with two games against potential playoff candidates.

The first of these games took place against the San Antonio Rampage, who were still hanging by a thread in the playoff race.

Matt Watkins tallied the game’s first goal just shy of midway through the second period to put the Rampage up 1-0. Watkins came racing into the zone and put a shot on IceHogs goalie Hannu Toivonen from about 5 feet out. Toivonen couldn’t handle the low shot, and Watkins’ momentum carried him to the front of the net, where he alertly poked at the puck, which slid by Toivonen.

Rockford’s Jeff Taffe would even the score up at 1-1 4:44 after San Antonio took the lead. Taffe took the puck from the neutral zone and skated around the defense to the far side of the net, where he released a quick wrist shot to the far corner of the net for his 28th goal of the campaign.

Mathis Olimb and Brandon Pirri both had assists on the game-tying goal.
The Rampage would take the lead once again later in the middle frame with a blast from Rampage left winger Dane Byers. Watkins, who scored the first goal for the Rampage, was credited with an assist on the goal.

It wasn’t until the third period that Rockford would tie the score once again. This time, it was Kyle Beach scoring his 15th of the year. The goal was set up by Pirri, who won a faceoff in the offensive zone, and fed the puck to Beach, who buried his chance.

Later in the third, Ben Smith (who was recalled by the Chicago Blackhawks April 6) scored his 19th of the season with a feed from Olimb. While carrying the puck in transition, Olimb moved into the offensive zone, and found Smith trailing in the middle of the ice. Uncontested, Smith grabbed the pass and wristed a shot that Rampage netminder

Matt Climie initially got a piece of, but the puck had enough power behind it to find the back of the net, giving Rockford their first lead of the game.

Beach iced the game with his second goal of the night on an empty net with just more than a minute in the game. Pirri earned his second point of the night with the assist, and the IceHogs put an end to the Rampage’s hope of earning a playoff spot.

Friday, April 8, the ’Hogs hosted the red-hot Lake Erie Monsters, who had already secured a playoff spot, but were fighting for a higher seed.

Rockford has been a large thorn in the side of the Monsters this year, snapping many franchise records held by the Monsters this season. On two different occasions, Rockford has stopped Lake Erie’s franchise-high eight-game home winning streak, and a franchise-high eight-game winning streak. On this day, the ’Hogs would break another Monsters franchise record: their eight-game road winning streak.

Rob Klinkhammer started the scoring with a snipe from the far faceoff circle. Taffe was heading into the zone with the puck and left a nice drop pass for Klinkhammer, who buried his shot for the lead.

Julian Talbot pulled the game even with 10 seconds remaining in the first. Talbot just got out of the box for a hooking minor, and team captain Ben Walter found Talbot behind the ’Hogs’ defense. Talbot made a few nice moves and got Toivonen to go down early, and flipped a shot top shelf for the tying goal.

Just more than a minute into the middle frame, Pirri would get a breakaway of his own, courtesy of Klinkhammer. Pirri raced toward the net from the near-side faceoff circle, then quickly moved across to the other side just outside the blue paint, and flipped a backhand past Monsters goalie John Grahame to put Rockford up 2-1.

Rockford would score two more second-period goals to give the ’Hogs a big 4-1 lead. Peter LeBlanc would extend the lead to 3-1 with his 12th of the season, and Brian Connelly would tally his 11th of the season while on a late powerplay opportunity.

Matthew Ford would draw the Monsters to within 2 with a shorthanded goal 4:41 into the last frame. The partial breakaway goal was Ford’s 23rd on the season.

Rockford would hold on to the lead, and secure the 4-2 win, the ’Hogs’ third straight.
The following night, Rockford had their home finale against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Like Rockford, the Griffins were out of the playoff hunt, but both teams still had their fighting spirit.
Prior to the puck dropping, the IceHogs announced the winners of their annual player awards. The evening’s first award went to Smith, who received the Rookie of the Year Award. Taffe was named the club’s Most Valuable Player and the IceHogs leading scorer, with 63 points (28g-35a). Kyle Hagel was awarded the team’s Man of the Year Award and was named Rockford’s Unsung Hero.

Connelly was awarded the IceHogs’ Best Defensman for 2010-11 Award after gaining 51 points (11g-40a) through 78 games, which set an IceHogs AHL single-season record for most points by a defenseman, previously set by Danny Groulx in 2008-09 with 40 points.
Captain Garnet Exelby was named Rockford’s Heavy Hitter, and Ryan Stanton received the team’s Most Improved Player Award.

Olimb would get the scoring under way for the ’Hogs early, with a shorthanded goal. 20-year-old prospect David Gilbert notched his second professional point with an assist on the goal. Gilbert was one of the recent call-ups as his season with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan was over.

Grand Rapids scored the next two goals to give them a 2-1 lead. Jamie Johnson scored the first goal less than a minute after Rockford’s shorthanded goal, and Francis Pare gave the Griffins the lead just more than halfway through the period.

The scoring was far from done in the first period, as Rockford answered with 2 goals of their own. Klinkhammer tallied his 16th of the season off a nice drop pass from Taffe, which Klink buried over the shoulder of Jordan Pearce to tie the game.

Philippe Paradis scored his first professional goal later in the first to give Rockford a 3-2 lead at the end of one period. Paradis showed amazing patience on the goal, which is rare for such a young player. He grabbed the puck from behind the net, and with Pearce down in front of the net, Paradis skated around the front of the net from the left to the right, and flipped a shot top shelf for the goal.

Immediately after, Paradis skated over to the near boards, arms raised in celebration, and crashed into the pane of plexiglass separating himself from one of the eramen. Paradis, a former first-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2009 NHL draft (No. 27 overall) finished his season in the QMJHL with the P.E.I. Rocket, amassing 53 points (23g-30a) in 59 games.

This quieted down quickly for the rest of the game, and neither team was able to score in the middle frame.

The same was true with the third period, until Olimb took a hooking penalty with 1:10 remaining in regulation.

A shot from the point went off an IceHogs player and right to Taffe, who was between the point and faceoff circle. Alertly, Taffe spun around and shot the puck down ice, where it went sailing roughly 85 feet to the back of the net, sealing the ’Hogs’ 4-2 victory.

Sunday’s game against the Chicago Wolves would mark the last game of the season for both teams. Chicago was just eliminated the night before with Oklahoma City winning their game, but the rivalry between these two teams meant this game was going to be played like an elimination game.

Rockford started out showing the effects of playing three games in three days, as Chicago tallied 3 unanswered goals in the first two periods. Riley Holzapfel, Mark Matheson and Fredrik Pettersson scored Chicago’s three goals before midway through the second, and had a 3-0 lead. Rockford was being outplayed, and couldn’t manage to get anything past Edward Pasquale until Gilbert picked up a rebound from a Taffe shot and cut into the lead with 1:02 left.

The ’Hogs had a chance to cut into the lead with a powerplay that carried over from the second period to the third. Darren Haydar came into possession of the puck and found Tim Miller, who beat Toivonen for a shorthanded goal, giving the Wolves another 3-goal lead, 4-1.

Rockford, with the help of Gilbert, would start to chip away at the lead. Less than 2 minutes after the shorthanded goal, Gilbert notched his second of the night, while on the advantage, bringing the deficit back down to 2.

Later in the period, Klinkhammer would notch an unassisted goal off a Chicago turnover, bringing the game to a manageable 1-goal differential.

With about 5 minutes left in the game, Taffe took a puck to the chin off a deflected shot, and was shook up for a minute. Despite the injury, Taffe skated right back to the ice, ready for the next puck drop. ’Hogs announcer Mike Peck said it best when he described Taffe’s situation: “The season is over for the ’Hogs, there is 5 minutes left in a meaningless game, yet Taffe gets back out there to finish up the game.” That indeed shows the toughness and character that Taffe represents.

As the game was winding down, Rockford sent Toivonen to the bench in favor of the extra attacker, Taffe. With 39 seconds left, Olimb wristed a shot that found the back of the net, and gave the ’Hogs the first tie of the game since the opening 0-0 score. With 3 unanswered goals, Rockford had put themselves in position for an amazing come-from-behind victory.

Chicago seemed to control the overtime period, registering the first three shots on goal, and keeping possession of the puck for most of the overtime session.

Gathering the puck in the defensive end, Stanton fed the puck to Klinkhammer, who found, who else, but Taffe in the offensive zone. Taffe ripped a shot that ricocheted off the crossbar and into the back of the net, sealing a seemingly-insurmountable come-from-behind win for the ’Hogs, 5-4.

It was a storybook ending for both the ’Hogs and Taffe, as the goal was a career-best 30th goal for Taffe on the season. The win also gave Rockford the AHL’s best record in the last 10 games of the season, as Rockford finished off with an impressive 9-1 record, as well as a five-game winning streak, tying a season high.

Next week, Tales from the Trough will have a recap from the 2010-2011 season, as well as some comments from IceHogs players about their season.

From the April 13-19, 2011 issue

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