Hockey: Tales from the Trough: IceHogs pick up 3 points in three-game week

Rockford IceHogs defenseman Brian Connelly (foreground, 10) tries to feed a pass across the goal crease to Peter LeBlanc (32) while Milwaukee Admirals goalie Jeremy Smith (30) and defenseman Ryan Ellis (6) try to stop the pass. Connelly currently ranks second among all AHL defensemen in scoring with 25 points (3G, 22A). (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

The Rockford IceHogs came into last week riding a three-game point streak, and looked to continue the streak Wednesday, Dec. 14, in Grand Rapids against the Griffins in the last meeting of the regular season for these two teams.

It only took Grand Rapids 67 seconds to score the first goal of the game. ’Hogs goalie Carter Hutton grabbed the puck and shot it against the near boards in a clearing attempt. Adam Estoclet stopped the puck on the boards and quickly fired a shot toward the net. On the way in, Willie Coetzee got a piece of the puck and redirected it past Hutton for a quick lead.

Andrew Shaw tied it up at the 16:00 mark of the first frame. Joe Laving fired a shot from the blue line, which Joey MacDonald fended off, but the rebound came right to Shaw, who snapped it past MacDonald.

Rockford would take the lead later in the period with Lavin scoring his second point of the night. The defenseman was playing deep on the right side of the net when a pass by Brandon Pirri came right to Lavin’s stick and into the back of the net.

Not to be outdone, Francis Pare notched his fourth goal of the year later in the first. The goal came on the rush just after the Griffins killed off a ’Hogs power play, which included more than 1 minute of five-on-three play. Pare took the puck across the blue line to the right face-off circle and sniped a shot to the stick side of Hutton, tying the game at 2-2.

After a back-and-forth first period, neither team would score in the second.

Coetzee brought the scoring drought to an end with an unassisted goal at the start of the third. After grabbing a turnover just shy of mid-ice, Coetzee raced to the right side of the ice, then made a nice toe drag move across center ice, and beat Hutton glove-side, giving the Griffins the lead once again.

Similar to the first period, after Coetzee scored a goal, Shaw would do the same, scoring his second of the evening. Brian Connelly took the puck toward the net and fired a shot in close, which was fended off by MacDonald. Ben Smith was in close and tried to poke at the loose puck, but grabbed it and bounced it behind the left side of the net and out the right side, where Shaw was stationed. MacDonald was still down on the ice from the scrum in front of the net, and Shaw fired it in to tie the score once again.

Rockford would take the lead a few minutes later with Brandon Segal scoring after a face-off win in the offensive zone by Brett McLean. After winning the face-off, Lavin fed the puck cross-ice to Shawn Lalonde, who fired the puck at the net. Segal was in the right place in front of the net, and redirected it past MacDonald.

Grand Rapids came back around the middle of the frame to tie things up once again. Trevor Parkes was aggressive in front of the net and forced a loose puck past Hutton.

After 60 minutes, neither team claimed the lead. Five minutes of overtime wasn’t enough to decide a victor, so the teams went back to a shootout. Last week when the two teams squared off, Rockford won the shootout, but this time it was Grand Rapids that would take the extra point. It took seven rounds to decide the winner, and Landon Ferraro iced the game with the seventh-round goal, winning the shootout 2-1. Pirri was the only ’Hogs shooter to score in the “skills competition.”

Rockford finished the regular season with a 3-0-0-1 record against the Griffins, taking 7 of a possible 8 points. The shootout loss also continued Rockford’s point streak to a season-high four games.

Friday, the ’Hogs would travel back home to the BMO Harris Bank Center for a meeting with the Peoria Rivermen.

Rockford did almost everything right against the Rivermen, but couldn’t consistently score on Jake Allen. A late first-period penalty gave Rockford their second power play of the evening, one they would convert into a goal with a blast from the point by Connelly. Pirri and Peter LeBlanc set up the game’s first goal, and only marker in the first period. Rockford put up some big numbers in the first, outshooting Peoria 18-11.

The Rivermen owned the middle frame, tallying three unanswered goals to go up 3-1 after 40 minutes. Former IceHogs skater Derek Nesbitt tallied a goal and an assist for the Rivermen, as did Jonathan Cheechoo.

Pirri remained hot and scored his second point of the night with a goal 1:40 into the last frame. The shot from the left wing was probably one Allen would want back, as he misplayed the shot, which was blasted past his glove-side.

Peoria would reclaim a 2-goal lead later in the third on a rebound that took a bad bounce. Alec Richards came out to play a shot that was out on his right side where the puck was blocked slightly, and bounced behind the net, hitting the boards. The bouncing puck rebounded to the other side of the net, where Chase Polacek was waiting, and slammed it home.

Richards would head to the bench with time expiring in the game, but Anthony Nigro sealed the game with 9 seconds left with an empty-net goal, leaving the ’Hogs skating off with a 5-2 loss, and an end to their four-game point streak.

Rockford’s inability to capitalize on the second- and third-chance rebounds hurt the team. On a good night, a team will get roughly 12-15 scoring chances, and Rockford had at least 25 this game, but couldn’t put the biscuit in the basket when they had their chances.

The following night, Rockford played host to the Milwaukee Admirals for the first time this year. Rockford faced Milwaukee last week, and lost in the shootout. This time, it was Rockford getting the win against the division rival after another 40-plus shot performance.

Milwaukee’s Tyler Sloan was tagged for the first penalty of the game, coming midway through the first period, and the ’Hogs capitalized quickly. LeBlanc scored 17 seconds after the penalty, giving the ’Hogs a 1-0 lead. The goal was a good tip-in goal set up by a nice feed from Pirri, who was passing the puck back and forth with Connelly on the near-side wing.

Jonathon Blum, recently sent down from the Nashville Predators of the NHL, tied the score shortly after LeBlanc’s goal on Milwaukee’s first power-play opportunity of the evening. The tip-in goal, as a result of a bounce off Milwaukee’s Ryan Thangs’ glove, was Blum’s first of the season.

Pirri would put Rockford ahead early in the second period — on Rockford’s third power play of the evening — from a great feed from Rostislav Olesz. Pirri held the puck along the right wing, and fed it back to Connelly on the blue line. Connelly faked going back to Pirri, and instead moved the puck left to Olesz, who fed the puck across the middle of the ice, where Pirri ripped a one-timer past Jeremy Smith.

Tough guy Brandon Bollig tallied his first of the year on an unexpected snapshot from the left faceoff circle. It appeared Smith did not expect Bollig to shoot, as the puck went just over his right shoulder into the back of the net.

For his third point of the night, and quite a bit of luck, Pirri scored his second power-play goal of the evening. LeBlanc played the puck back in the ’Hogs’ zone and moved it up to Olesz at center ice. Olesz fed it back to Pirri, who moved with speed up the right wing, and slapped the puck around the boards in an attempt to place the puck on the left side. Smith moved from the net and wrapped around the back of the net in an attempt to stop or slow the puck for the Ads. Fortunately for the ’Hogs, the puck took a fluke bounce off the glass, and skipped out in front of an open net, where Pirri alertly hustled to the puck and poked it in for the goal.

Milwaukee wouldn’t go away silently, however, as Blum scored one last goal for the Ads with 55 seconds left in the game, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a good middle frame by Rockford, which skated away with a 4-2 win.

Key points for the week:

1. Pirri gets his scoring touch back — After a slow week, Pirri got his scoring touch back, tallying 7 points in three games with three goals and four assists.

2. Defense clearing pucks from the net — On many occasions over the weekend, but mostly against Milwaukee, the ’Hogs’ skaters played good defense in front of the net and cleared away some loose pucks.

3. Power-play scoring — After scoring only three goals in 34 attempts, Rockford finished Friday and Saturday going four-for-nine on the power play, including an impressive three-for-five against Milwaukee Saturday.

Looking forward:

The Toronto Marlies come to Rockford for their first, and only, visit of the regular season Wednesday, Dec. 21, with game time at 7:05 p.m. The ’Hogs then head to Milwaukee Monday, Dec. 26, for the third meeting against the Ads this season.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2011, issue

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