By Todd Reicher
The Rockford IceHogs took home four big points last weekend (March 10-11) as the ’Hogs beat the Milwaukee Admirals in the home-and-home series to extend their point streak to eight games, and their win streak to four games.
What really makes this impressive was the fact that Rockford was without most of their big-name players. Ben Smith was recently diagnosed with a labral tear in his right hip and a hernia, and will undergo surgery March 15. The recovery will take approximately 16 weeks, meaning Smith will be out for the season.
Also out of the lineup for the weekend was top point producer Brandon Pirri, who was listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury.
With the injuries, Rockford would need some players to step up, and it was Brandon Svendsen and Chris DiDomenico who came up big for Rockford.
Game one took place Saturday, March 10, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, and it was Rockford getting on the board first. DiDomenco put pressure on the Milwaukee net with an aggressive forecheck and was rewarded after he received the puck from Svendsen on a great centering pass and tapped the puck by Ads goaltender Jeremy Smith.
After a scoreless second period, Svendsen’s hard work and hustle put Rockford up 2-0 at 5:33 in the third. Milwaukee had the puck in the IceHogs’ zone, where Matt Fornataro broke up a pass and took possession of the puck. Admirals defenseman Scott Valentine was out of position, leading to a two-on-one with Svendsen. As the puck rolled into the offensive zone, Svendsen picked it up near the right boards and sniped a shot over the left shoulder of Smith.
Milwaukee pulled to within 1 only 47 seconds after Svendsen’s goal while on the power play. Jonathon Blum, who finished the night a -4 for Milwaukee, blasted a shot from the left point that sailed past a screened Carter Hutton.
Rockford continued the back-and-forth scoring with another tally 3 minutes later. DiDomenico was stationed in front of the net, and Philippe Paradis threw a puck toward the goal, where DiDomenico left his feet, allowing the puck to somehow find its way to the twine, putting Rockford back up by 2.
As time was winding down, Peter LeBlanc fought for the puck on the far center line and pushed a backhanded shot toward the empty net. The puck slid slowly across the ice with enough momentum to carry over the goal line, sealing Rockford’s win, 4-1.
The four goals Saturday was the first time since Jan. 8 Rockford had tallied more than 3 goals in a game.
Hutton picked up the win, marking the fifth-straight game he has held the Admirals to one or fewer goals in each game.
Both teams met again the following night in Rockford to play the second game of the home-and-home series, and the outcome was the same as the previous night with Rockford beating the Admirals 3-2.
Rockford, wearing their “Viva Rock Vegas”-themed jerseys for the annual Jersey Auction Night, controlled the first two periods in both shots and puck possession, earning a 28-13 shots-on-goal advantage after 40 minutes. In that span, Rockford would see tallies from Ryan Stanton and Svendsen, putting Rockford up 2-0 after two periods.
Stanton scored Rockford’s first goal on their first power-play opportunity of the game. The shot from the point, set up by Jeremy Morin and Marc-Olivier Vallerand, was Stanton’s second on the year.
Svendsen put Rockford up by 2 at the 1 minute mark of the second period, with DiDomenico and Byron Froese setting up the marker.
Early in the third, Rob Flick was rewarded for going hard to the net. Wade Brookbank brought the puck into the offensive zone and fired a shot to the far side of the net. Smith blocked away the shot, but the rebound came right to Flick, who was rushing in, uncontested. Flick got his stick on the puck and tapped it in for his third of the year, giving Rockford a commanding 3-0 lead.
Hutton’s bid for his third shutout of the season was shot down by Taylor Beck with just more than 4 minutes left to play. A nice centering pass from Jani Lajunen found Beck in front of the goal and Beck tapped in the puck past an outstretched Hutton.
A late Rockford penalty helped Milwaukee grab a second goal in just more than 2 minutes at the 17:59 mark of the final frame. Chris Mueller scored his team-leading 26th goal 37 seconds into their last power play to close the gap to 3-2.
But a boarding penalty by Beck at 19:01 all but sealed the Admirals’ fate as Rockford held off a late charge by the Admirals to take a 3-2 win, putting Rockford only 1 point behind Milwaukee in the division standings.
Keys for the week:
1. Small-name players coming up big — DiDomenico and Svendsen have been in Rockford’s lineup for a total of 64 games between the two players, just three more than defenseman Brian Fahey has played in by himself. Before coming into this weekend, Svendsen had 5 points, and DiDomenico was at 9, but both players accounted for 5 points this weekend, as the linemates picked up the slack offensively with some of Rockford’s top scorers out of the lineup.
2. Sound and solid defensive play — Rockford’s change in defensive scheme to a 3-1-1 format has certainly shown dividends since the change was made in January. Rockford has adapted to the change very well, and it shows in the shots-on-goal for the opposing teams.
3. The play of Simon Danis-Pepin — This goes along with the last point about solid defensive play. Often, people do not make the scoresheet, but create plays that lead to, or prevent, goals or opportunities.
One such player who stood out for me in Sunday’s game was Simon Danis-Pepin. The 6-foot-7-inch defenseman has seen limited action with the IceHogs in the last two seasons as he has played most of his time at the ECHL affiliate Toldeo Walleye.
“SDP” was using his reach to break up passes, which happened on at least three defensive zone situations, and was also using his large frame to block out opponents and lay some hits. His position was good, which allowed his defensive linemate, Shawn Lalonde, who is an offensive-defenseman, to be more active in the offense and pinch in, which created more offensive chances.
Rockford’s bid for a playoff spot continues with three road games this week. Tuesday, March 13, Rockford heads to Oklahoma City to take on the division-leading Barons at 7 p.m. (results unavailable at press time). The ’Hogs then travel down to Texas for a Friday game against the Houston Aeros at 7:35 p.m., then a Saturday game against the San Antonio Rampage at 7 p.m. With all four teams still in the playoff picture, it will be three very hard-fought games for the ’Hogs.
From the March 14-20, 2012, issue