By Todd Reicher
At the end of December, if I told you the ’Hogs would be in playoff contention by the All-Star break, you would have said I was crazy. It’s a good thing I don’t make predictions, because I would have certainly been wrong on this one.
January was the best month of the season for the Rockford IceHogs, with the team going 9-3-0-1 in their 13 January games. In comparison, Rockford’s record at the end of December was 11-18-1-3. So, in one month of 13 games, Rockford almost equaled their win total from their first 33 games.
In addition to their great January record, Rockford enters the break as one of the AHL’s hottest teams in the last 10 games, with a record of 7-2-0-1. Only three other teams in the AHL have had a better record in their last 10.
So what changed in January? Rockford changed their defensive scheme around, putting an additional forward into their neutral zone coverage, limiting the number of odd-man chances for the opponent. This also lowers the number of scoring chances for Rockford, but this has not been as much of an issue as the defense, hence the change.
Going back to the All-Star break, Rockford initially had one member selected to the All-Star team, then two, then one. The All-Star weekend, taking place Sunday, Jan. 29 and Monday, Jan. 30, in Atlantic City, N.J., will be the first for Brandon Pirri. The second IceHogs player to be selected, Brian Connelly, was chosen Jan. 24 as an injury replacement, which gave Rockford two skaters heading out East.
So how do we go back down to having only one All-Star? Friday, Jan. 27, the Chicago Blackhawks announced the acquisition of veteran center Brendan Morrison from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Connelly. Morrison will go to the Blackhawks and most likely play a second or third line center position, averaging about 12 to 15 minutes of ice time while logging some PK minutes. Morrison also brings a strong face-off win percentage with a 50.3 percent win rate this season for Calgary.
What does this mean for the ’Hogs? Rockford will lose a versatile defenseman who is second among AHL defensemen in points and holds almost as many assists as the entire Rockford defensive corps. He also holds the IceHogs’ record for most career assists and points by a defenseman. Some may ask why the Blackhawks would trade away such a good player, and the answer lies here in Rockford. The Blackhawks are very deep in the defensive position, and Connelly more than likely would not have cracked the Blackhawks’ lineup anytime soon.
Connelly’s last game for Rockford was Thursday, Jan. 26, in Charlotte against the Checkers. The ’Hogs were riding a season-high four-game winning streak, as well as killing off 27-straight penalties dating back to Jan. 11 against the Chicago Wolves. Charlotte put a quick stop to the PK streak, scoring on not only their first power-play opportunity of the game, but on all three of their chances, giving them a 3-0 lead.
Charlotte’s scoring streak held up until 1:01 remaining in the second period. Peter LeBlanc, who had been held without a point in seven straight games, tipped in a rebound from a shot by Rostislav Olesz to give Rockford their first goal of the game.
LeBlanc got his second goal of the night when he raced down a loose puck at mid ice to get alone in on Checkers goaltender John Muse, pulling Rockford to within a goal.
Pirri completed the comeback with 1:30 left in regulation with a quick snapshot over the left shoulder of Muse.
Charlotte would wind up taking the game in a shootout, scoring on three of five shootout attempts to Rockford’s two-for-five. However, Rockford’s comeback gave the ’Hogs a point, ending their winning streak but keeping their point streak intact.
The following night, Rockford played the second game of the back-to-back series against the Checkers, and just like the night before, Charlotte got the first goals of the game with goals at 13:15 of the first period and 9:59 of the second.
Staying hot, LeBlanc netted a blast from the point to close the gap within one. The power-play goal hit the iron behind Muse and found its way to the back of the net.
Toward the middle of the third frame, LeBlanc struck again, tapping in a rebound from a Brian Fahey shot to even the score at 2-2.
Only 2 minutes later, Rockford would take the lead for good. Olesz sent a pass to the near blue line to Dylan Olsen, who fired a shot at the net. Traffic prevented Muse from getting a good look at the puck, which drew iron and went into net.
A late Checkers power play was fought off, and Rockford came back home from Charlotte taking 3 out of a possible 4 points.
For their third game in three days, Rockford hosted the fleeting Milwaukee Admirals, who have been in a slump the last few weeks, going 2-7-1 in their last 10 games.
The sellout crowd of 6,287 fans showed up for the third annual Pink in the Rink Night at the BMO Harris Bank Center to watch their IceHogs skate to a 3-1 win.
Rockford scored early for the first lead of the game with Olesz tallying his eighth point in six games. Olesz redirected a shot from Joe Lavin that skittered past Jeremy Smith, putting Rockford up 1-0. Pirri picked up the secondary assist on the goal, giving him a point in seven straight games.
Milwaukee jumped right back into the mix later in the period on a redirected goal by Taylor Beck at 12:44.
Rockford controlled a majority of the second frame, outshooting Milwaukee 15-7. On top of that, the ’Hogs got two past Smith to take a 3-1 lead.
Lavin scored the first of Rockford’s second-period goals on a shot Smith would normally stop. Jeremy Morin found Lavin racing on the left wing around middle ice, and Lavin skated the puck to the offensive zone. Lavin got to the face-off circle and blasted a shot to the far post, and beat Smith between his pad and glove.
The second goal of the period came with 1:48 left in the period while on the power play. Ben Smith was playing on the left wing and found Fahey on the opposite side of the ice. Smith’s pass sailed in front of Fahey, who pounded a one-timer past Smith to put Rockford up 3-1 late in the second.
Milwaukee fought aggressively in the third, but couldn’t manage to get a puck past Carter Hutton, and Rockford held on for a 3-1 lead.
Keys for the week:
1. Making defensive adjustments — It is never easy to make adjustments for teams, especially when the team has been close in so many games. Now that Rockford has changed their plan around, expect to see fewer goals by both Rockford and their opponents.
2. Fighting back when down — In both games against Charlotte, Rockford was down by at least two goals and came back to force overtime in one game and win the other. Since the beginning of 2012, Rockford is 4-0-0-1 when trailing after two periods.
Rockford takes their season-high seven-game point streak to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., for a 7 p.m. matchup against the Chicago Wolves Friday, Feb. 3, in Rockford’s only game of the week. The following week, Rockford has four straight games at home, starting Wednesday, Feb. 8, against the Lake Erie Monsters.
From the Feb. 1-7, 2012, issue