Hockey: Tales from the Trough: Bench-clearing brawl overshadows ’Hogs’ six-game point streak

Rockford IceHogs winger Rostislav Olesz (85) keeps the puck away from San Antonio Rampage Defenseman Colby Robak (25) during a game Saturday, March 31. Olesz was hot for Rockford, tallying four goals and one assist in three games, helping Rockford finish 2-0-0-1. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

The Rockford IceHogs are still in the heat of the Calder Cup playoff race, and their six-game point streak is keeping them in close proximity of a playoff spot.

As of Monday, April 2, the ’Hogs were only 2 points out of the eighth, and final, playoff spot. In fact, the Western Conference is so tight, the ’Hogs are only 4 points out of fourth place in the conference standings, and 6 points behind the Midwest Division-leading Chicago Wolves.

Rockford’s first game of the week took place Friday, March 30, against the Peoria Rivermen. In their 12th, and final, meeting of the regular season, it was Rockford coming from behind and winning in a shootout, 4-3.

Rostislav Olesz tallied his first goal of the game 9:10 into the first period with Connor Goggin grabbing his first professional point with the secondary assist. Peter LeBlanc also grabbed a point with the primary assist. LeBlanc won a board battle for the puck and flipped it toward the front of the Peoria net. Olesz was stationed out front and took a swing at the puck in midair and batted it past Jake Allen for the 1-0 lead.

Peoria’s Jonathan Cheechoo evened the score at 4:35 of the second frame while on the power play.

The score remained tied until Olesz notched his second goal of the game on a pass from Jeremy Morin. The power-play goal came at 1:56 of the third period, with Morin and Ben Youds factoring in on the goal.

The Rivermen tied the game at the 6:07 mark of the third period with Cade Fairchild grabbing his seventh goal of the season off a blast from the far point.

Cheechoo gave Peoria the lead just past the halfway point of the final period by flipping the puck past Carter Hutton.

It looked like the Rivermen were going to steal a win away from Rockford until a late Peoria penalty gave Rockford a window. With 1:03 left in the game, Brennan Evans was flagged for hooking, allowing Rockford a six-on-four advantage for the rest of the game.

Hutton was sent to the bench and Rockford put high pressure on Allen as Rockford looked to tally the equalizing goal. With 20 seconds remaining, the ’Hogs had one last rush at the net. LeBlanc fired a shot at net, which was fended off, but right to team captain Brian Fahey. With 4.1 seconds left on the clock, Fahey corralled the rebound and sent it behind Allen for the tying goal, sending the game to overtime.

With only one shot on goal by the Rivermen, and no winner in overtime, the teams would head to the shootout. After Peoria took an early 2-0 lead after two rounds of the shootout, Hutton would stop the next three shooters, and Rockford’s Brandon Pirri, Morin and Matt Fornataro would all score on their attempts, giving Rockford a thrilling 3-2 advantage in the shootout, and 4-3 win.

The following night, the San Antonio Rampage would head in to the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, and once again, a shootout would decide the fate of the game. This time, it was San Antonio taking the second point home in the seventh round of the shootout, beating the IceHogs 4-3.

Olesz once again got the scoring started while Rockford was on their second power play of the game. Olesz took the same position in front of the net, and LeBlanc fed a perfect pass to the tape of Olesz, who buried his 16th of the season.

Former Rockford skater Bracken Kearns evened the game up on a power-play marker at 7:11 of the second period.

Exactly 30 seconds later, the Rampage would take the lead on a goal by Michal Repik, putting the Rampage up 2-1.

But Pirri would even the game up later in the period on a shot from the right side of the slot for his 23rd of the season. Fornataro took the puck straight up the middle and left the puck for Pirri, who quickly fired a shot past Jacob Markstrom.

Continuing his hot streak, Olesz put Rockford ahead 3-2 with a redirected shot from a Ryan Stanton blast.

Rockford held the lead until 12:18 of the final period when Jon Matsumoto tallied his 21st of the season to tie the game. Matsumoto, a mid-season trade acquisition from the Charlotte Checkers, grabbed the puck at the end of a transition in the Rockford zone. Stanton lay down on the ice to block a passing attempt, but Matsumoto showed patience and waited for Stanton to slide by, and wristed a high shot off the crossbar behind Hutton.

For the third straight game, Rockford would head to overtime. The ’Hogs managed four overtime shots to San Antonio’s one, but neither team managed a goal, and once again we had a shootout.

Former IceHogs skater Mark Cullen slipped his shot past Hutton for the 1-0 lead after the first round. Rookie Terry Broadhurst scored in the fourth round for Rockford to tie the shootout at 1-1. It wasn’t until the seventh round when James Wright scored for San Antonio to end the game, giving the Rampage the coveted second point, and a 4-3 win.

The following night, Rockford would head to Milwaukee for their third game in three days.

Kyle Beach tallied first at the 6:04 mark of the first period to give Rockford the lead. Both goalies played solid throughout the first 30 minutes of hockey, with Hutton stopping all 13 shots and Jeremy Smith stopping 18 of 19.

Then, it happened. It hadn’t happened since the Rockford IceHogs’ first season in 1999. Back then, the newly-formed Rockford IceHogs were in the now-defunct United Hockey League (UHL). A bench-clearing brawl took place at the midpoint of the second period.

Toward the tail end of a TV timeout, IceHogs forward Rob Flick was circling the ice in the Milwaukee zone by Allen. A few words between the two players were exchanged, and the two began fighting. Seconds after the fracas began, both the Milwaukee and Rockford benches cleared with all players scrapping in the Milwaukee zone. IceHogs announcer Mike Peck described it perfectly when he said the ice looked like “a hockey equipment yard sale” as the equipment trainer came “out on the ice with a laundry cart to grab all of the equipment.”

In the end, the officials sent all players and coaches to their dressing rooms for a brief intermission. After a 10-minute break, both teams headed back to the ice to resume the second period. A total of 137 penalty minutes were dished out, and four players on both teams, including both starting goalies and head coaches, were ejected from the game.

Once things settled down, it was Mark Van Guilder getting the equalizing goal, beating Alexander Salak at 2:42 of the final period.

However, neither team was able to score again in regulation as we headed to overtime. After a scoreless 5 minutes of overtime, Rockford would skate into a shootout for the fourth-straight game.

Broadhurst and Pirri, Rockford’s first two shooters, scored for Rockford, and Salak stopped the first two Milwaukee shooters, Van Guilder and Chris Mueller. Jonathon Blum tallied in the third round to bring Milwaukee closer, but Salak stopped the two remaining Admirals’ shooters to give Rockford a 2-1 advantage in the shootout, and a 2-1 victory. The win gave Rockford their eighth-straight victory against the Ads. In those eight games, Rockford has outscored Milwaukee 18-10 and held Milwaukee to one goal in six of those games.

However, Rockford’s hottest skater of the week, Olesz, came off the ice in the first period with an undisclosed injury and did not return to the game. His status for the upcoming week is uncertain.

Keys for the week:

1. Getting on the board first — It’s always harder playing from behind, and Rockford managed to score first in each of their three games this week. Olesz scored the first goal twice this weekend, and finished with four goals and one assist in three games.

2. Three-point games — A win is a win, and 2 points is big for Rockford at this point in the season. However, with Rockford going to overtime in four straight games, it gave their opponent at least 1 point in those games, which prevented Rockford from either creating more distance or crawling closer in the point standings.

Looking forward:

Rockford has a huge double-header on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters this weekend. The Monsters, who are only 2 points ahead of Rockford in the conference standings, are also fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Both teams square off Friday and Saturday, April 6-7, with game time at 6:30 p.m.

From the April 4-10, 2012, issue

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