By Todd Reicher
The Rockford IceHogs have kept their playoff hopes alive by winning three games in three days, including a double-header against the Houston Aeros.
After Rockford fell to Houston 4-3 Friday, March 16, in Houston, the ’Hogs looked to get some revenge on their own ice one week later, this past Friday, March 23.
The game would mark the debut of the Chicago Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (18th overall) in this year’s draft, Mark McNeill. Although McNeill didn’t make the scoring sheet, his skating ability and on-ice awareness showed why he was chosen early in the draft.
Defenseman Brian Fahey beat former IceHogs goaltender Joe Fallon with 30 seconds left in the first period to put the first point on the board. The goal came only 4 seconds into Rockford’s second power play of the evening.
Kyle Beach, who returned to the ice after sitting out 57 games because of an injury, instigated a roughing penalty on Houston’s Kris Foucault, who was racing down a puck to try to beat an icing call. Beach made it to the puck first, and Foucault made contact with Beach around the time of the icing call.
Beach shoved Foucault, showing his displeasure with the hit, and Foucault took the bait and started to wrestle with Beach, resulting in a roughing minor. To rub some salt in the wound, Beach was awarded the primary assist on the ensuing goal.
All was quiet until late in the third period when Rostislav Olesz tallied his 13th goal of the season. Ryan Stanton put the puck in deep in the offensive zone, which was picked up by Chris DiDomenico, who was against the boards behind the net on the near side. DiDomenico fed a pretty pass to the center of the ice to Olesz, who was streaking in from the blue line and flipped a shot top shelf for the 2-0 lead.
Rockford’s lead would hold up until 1:57 remaining in the final frame, when Chad Rau ended Carter Hutton’s bid for a shutout. The IceHogs were playing a defensive period, and Houston, who put out 12 shots in the first two periods, scored on one of their 16 third-period shots to close the gap to a goal.
The ’Hogs fought off a few more shots in the last 1:57 of the final period, and escaped a late Houston charge to win 2-1.
Saturday, March 24, the same two teams met for the final time this season, and Rockford took 2 more points from Houston with a 4-1 win. It would also mark the debut of another Blackhawks draft pick, Terry Boardhurst.
The Aeros got on the board first, courtesy of ex-IceHogs forward Jeff Taffe. On their second rush of their first power play, Taffe skated right up the middle of the offensive zone and wristed a quick shot past Hutton, giving Houston the lead 2:35 into the game.
Neither team would score again until late in the second period. The ’Hogs were fighting for puck possession in the defensive zone, and a clearing attempt hit the far-side linesman, and Jeremy Morin tracked down the loose puck and started a transition with Brandon Pirri. As Pirri skated into the offensive zone, he tried to release a shot on net, but was fought off the puck by a Houston defenseman and lost the handle on the puck. Morin, who continued to follow the play, was a few steps behind Pirri, picked up the puck, and rifled it to the back of the net to tie the game at 1-1 with 33 seconds remaining in the period.
Rockford’s checking line of Rob Flick, Philippe Paradis and Brandon Svendsen took control of the game in the third period, scoring three unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes of hockey.
The go-ahead goal at 6:01 of the final frame was started by an aggressive forecheck from Svendsen. Houston had won a defensive zone face-off, sending the puck behind their net. Flick followed behind the net and put a check on the Houston defenseman to draw the puck loose. The Aeros took the puck on their far boards, but Svendsen created a turnover and fed the puck to Flick, who was just coming around from the back of the net. Flick moved from left to right and slipped a backhand shot past Scott Greenham for the goal.
Less than a minute later, Flick would engage in fisticuffs with Houston’s Drew Bagnall behind the Houston net. A melee ensued with a few other players, including Paradis, and four players total would head to the penalty box.
Shortly after Flick was released from the box, he would complete the Gordie Howe hat trick, assisting on a goal from Paradis. Svendsen poked the puck out to center ice as Flick tracked it down and carried it deep into the Aeros’ zone. Paradis followed behind in the center of the ice, and Flick made a quick stop, turned around just in time to see Paradis in the middle of the offensive zone, and Flick fed the puck over to Paradis, who made good on the tape-to-tape pass, putting Rockford up 3-1 with 7:30 left to play.
Paradis would notch his second goal of the game, an empty-net goal, with 2:27 left in the game, for his first multi-goal game, icing the win for Rockford 4-1, completing a weekend sweep of the Aeros.
Sunday, March 25, Rockford would play their third game in as many days against the division rival Milwaukee Admirals at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Rockford, and Hutton, have Milwaukee’s number so far this year, with both Hutton and Rockford going 8-1-0-0 this season. After Sunday’s game, that record would be increased to 9-1-0-0 as Rockford took home a 3-2 shootout win against the Admirals, their second shootout win in Milwaukee this season.
Wade Brookbank, who missed Saturday’s game to welcome his newborn son to the world, scored his first goal of the season — and his first goal in more than a year — 8:04 into the first period. Flick and Paradis assisted on the goal, continuing their hot play from the previous night’s game.
Ryan Thang tied the game up with under a minute left to play in the first period.
The second period started with Beach tallying his fourth goal of the season — and his first since returning to the lineup the previous night — with Broadhurst earning his first professional point with the secondary assist on the go-ahead goal.
With time winding down in the final frame, Milwaukee pulled goaltender Atte Engren in favor of the extra attacker. The sixth skater made the difference, and Brodie Dupont netted his fourth marker of the season with 32 seconds left in regulation to knot the game at 2-2.
A cautious overtime period showed only one shot on net, and after 5 minutes of tied hockey, the shootout would decide who would take home the second point. Paradis and Olesz would score for Rockford, and Hutton allowed one goal from Kyle Wilson, as Rockford won in the shootout 2-1, giving Rockford the extra point, and their third win in three games.
Keys for the week:
1. Lower lines scoring points — You tend to expect your top two lines to do your scoring for you, and when your lower lines score, it takes some pressure off your scoring lines. Rockford’s line of Flick, Paradis and Svendsen (as well as Brookbank on Sunday) did exactly that, and played a big role in Rockford’s Saturday and Sunday victories.
2. Big-name players returning to the lineup — Pirri and Beach both made their return to the lineup this week after missing some time (over half the season, in Beach’s case), and both contributed on the scoreboard this weekend. Also, what isn’t seen is the boost it gives the rest of the team on and off the ice in confidence.
With only eight games remaining in the regular season for Rockford, the ’Hogs will be fighting for a spot in the playoffs, as all remaining games are played against divisional opponents who are ahead of Rockford in the standings. Rockford will play their last set of three games in three days this week with games Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 30-April 1. Friday’s game is the last game of the season against the Peoria Rivermen, a 7:05 p.m. game at the BMO Harris Bank Center, and Saturday’s game at home has the San Antonio Rampage coming to town. The ’Hogs will then head back up to Milwaukee for the final time this season and take on the Admirals for a 3 p.m. game Sunday, April 1.
From the March 28-April 3, 2012, issue