Hockey: Tales from the Trough: Teddy bears flood ice as ’Hogs’ home stretch comes to losing end

Rockford IceHogs players and staff members help clean up the teddy bears thrown to the ice during the first period of Saturday’s (Dec. 3) game against the Abbotsford Heat. Fans tossed a total of 1,221 stuffed animals to the ice, which will be given out to local Rockford area charities. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

Rockford’s five-game home stretch came to an end this week, and started off better than it finished. Rockford opened the first two games of their home stretch with wins against San Antonio and Peoria, but the team fell short in their next three home games, losing to Oklahoma City, Lake Erie and Abbotsford.

The final two games of the home stand took place this past weekend, with the first game Friday night, Dec. 2, at the BMO Harris Bank Center against the Lake Erie Monsters.

The first period showcased hitting, shooting and fighting, but no goals. Rockford outshot Lake Erie 15-8, but Monsters goaltender Trevor Cann fended off all 15 shots, and Alexander Salak stopped all eight shots he faced, resulting in goose eggs on the scoreboard after 20 minutes. Shawn Lalonde and Brad Malone scrapped with 4 minutes left in the first, and former IceHogs forward Hugh Jessiman and Andrew Shaw were both flagged for roughing penalties with 15 seconds remaining in the first.

Period two started on a down note for Rockford. Twenty-four seconds into the frame, Lake Erie was creating traffic in front of the ’Hogs’ net, and a few players went down in the goal crease. After the play, Salak remained down on the ice as medical trainers rushed out on the ice. After a few minutes, Salak was helped off the ice by two Rockford trainers, unable to place any weight on his left leg.

This left the door open for Alec Richards to step in. One of the hardest things for a goalie to do in hockey is to come into a game “cold,” as the player is not allowed any time to warm up after coming in relief of another goaltender.

It didn’t take long for Lake Erie to capitalize on the change in net. In fact, it only took 25 seconds for Greg Mauldin to find the net, giving Lake Erie the lead.

Jessiman would add to that lead a few minutes later, with his eighth goal of the season. The goal was scored with just 1 second remaining on a power play, caused by a Dylan Olsen cross-checking penalty.

Exactly 1 minute later, the rink was flooded with stuffed animals when Peter LeBlanc pulled the ’Hogs to within one with his sixth goal of the season. Saturday’s game marked Rockford’s annual Teddy Bear Toss, when guests were encouraged to bring in a stuffed animal to throw onto the ice when Rockford scored their first goal. In all, 1,221 stuffed animals were collected, and they will be distributed to local charities throughout the Rockford area.

The game would get a little chippy after LeBlanc’s goal, as five players were tagged with penalties at the 8:58 mark of the period, including Lalonde tussling in his second fight of the game.

All the rough play favored Lake Erie, however, as they scored yet again in the second frame, just more than 2 minutes after the handful of penalties. Centerman Ryan Stoa netted his third of the season, giving the Monsters back their two-goal lead.

Lake Erie continued to put shots on goal in the third, and one of their 14 in the final frame beat Richards, giving the Monsters a 4-1 lead, which would turn out to be the final score. After Rockford almost doubled up Lake Erie in shots in the first 20 minutes, the Monsters out-shot Rockford 29-20 in the last 40 minutes of play.

With Salak out injured, Rockford called up Carter Hutton from the Toledo Walleye, Rockford’s ECHL affiliate.

The 26-year-old Hutton has been performing well this season for the Walleye, albeit showing a 7-7 record, and was given the start Saturday night, Dec. 3, for Rockford against the Abbotsford Heat.

In their third of four meetings this season, it would be a goalie standoff-style game, with Hutton going up against Leland Irving, who has had a great start to his season, boasting a 15-7-4 record, along with an impressive .914 save percentage and 2.30 goals against average (GAA), putting him eighth in the top 10 goalie rankings this season.

Only one goal would be scored by both teams in the first period, with the first goal going to the Heat. Krys Kolanos scored his 10th goal of the season 1 minute into a power play. The shot was fired into Hutton, who fended off the initial shot, but Kolanos picked up the loose change on the opposite side of the net and beat Hutton for the 1-0 lead.

It didn’t take long for Rockford to even things up, and it was courtesy of Brett McLean, scoring his sixth of the season. The goal was started by a turnover behind the Heat net caused by Philippe Paradis, who dished the rubber off to Brandon Segal, who found McLean for the goal.

The second period was a stalemate, with both teams allowing 11 shots on goal, but neither team finding the back of the net. Both teams were tied at 1-1 after 40 minutes, and tied with 20 shots each as well.

Rockford would double up Abbotsford on shots in the final frame, 9-4, but it was Abbotsford who would score the only goal in the third with 1:20 left to play in regulation.

Kolanos fired a puck on net, which Hutton fended off to the side. With the puck off to the side of the net, Ben Walter grabbed it, and flipped it from an odd angle that hit the side of Hutton and rolled into the back of the net, securing a 2-1 victory for the Heat.

Sunday, Dec. 4, had the ’Hogs traveling to Peoria once again to take on the Rivermen. Rockford easily handled the Rivermen in their last meeting in Rockford, and looked to duplicate their actions from the previous week.

Similar to their last meeting, the Rivermen got on the board first, and quickly stormed out to a 3-0 lead.

T.J Hensick, Shaun Heshka and Adam Cracknell all scored within a span of 6 minutes in the first period.

Rockford managed to close the gap to 3-1 before the period was over. Jimmy Hayes potted his fourth goal of the season with Rostislav Olesz and Brandon Pirri getting assists on the goal.

After a high-scoring first period, both teams would come up empty in the second, despite Rockford putting 17 shots on Ben Bishop.

The shooting onslaught continued for Rockford in the third frame, as the ’Hogs almost tripled the number of shots from Peoria, 21-8. Despite the shot differential, it was Peoria converting on 25 percent of their shots.

Jeremy Morin pulled the ’Hogs to within one goal 5 minutes into the third period. The power-play goal was set up by Brian Connelly, and Hutton was also credited with a rare goalie assist.

Rockford continued to pepper Bishop with shots, but a turnover changed the game in Peoria’s favor.

Jonathan Cheechoo received a puck from Cracknell and sniped a shot past Hutton, putting Peoria up by 2 once again.

Two minutes later, Phil McRae scored his team-leading 13th goal of the season on a shot that slipped under Hutton’s pads, giving Peoria a commanding 5-2 lead with under 4 minutes to play.

Shortly after the goal, both teams started in on one another, with penalties flying on both sides. Morin tangled with Stefan Della Rovere, resulting in 5-minute fighting majors for both players, and Shaw continued the altercation with Brennan Evans, resulting in both players being slapped with a 10-minute game misconduct. During the same series of events, Bishop was tagged with two roughing penalties, resulting in 4 minutes of power-play chances for Rockford to end the game.

The ’Hogs couldn’t capitalize on the advantage, as the team was held to 1-for-9 on the power play for the afternoon, and Peoria skated away with a 5-2 win.

Key points for the week:

1. Win the close games — Rockford did not play bad this week. Sure, the games against Lake Erie and Peoria were both 3-goal differentials, but Rockford was close in both games. It’s the little mistakes that have caused the team these tight victories, which the team will need to resolve quickly.

2. Need to score on the power play — Getting nine chances on the power play in one game is a rare feat. When you have that many chances, you need to convert on more than one. Before Peoria put Sunday’s game away, Rockford had seven power-play chances, and only managed to convert on one. If they only converted on one more of those seven, the game could have taken a much different course.

3. Get back on the winning track, before the goal is too far away — Granted, we are only a quarter of the way through the season, but Rockford needs to get back on the winning track quickly, or the playoffs will be out of the picture. I have mentioned before that Rockford plays in a very tough division, and they will need every win they can get, especially against division rivals. Also, take into account that Rockford plays each divisional opponent (except the Charlotte Checkers) at least 10 times throughout the course of the season, and Rockford has yet to play Milwaukee, who are always toward the top of the division.

Looking ahead:

Rockford will have another week of three games in three days this week, with the first two taking place at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Friday, Dec. 9, the Chicago Wolves come in to town, and Saturday, Dec. 10, the Grand Rapids Griffins return for the first time since their opening-night loss to Rockford back on Saturday, Oct. 8. Both games in Rockford take place at 7:05 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, Rockford crosses the border to face the Milwaukee Admirals for the first time this season, with game time at 4 p.m.

From the Dec. 7-13, 2011, issue

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