By Todd Reicher
Rockford was riding a three-game winning streak into a rare Tuesday night (Nov. 27) matchup at the BMO Harris Bank Center where the ’Hogs were hosting the Texas Stars.
Early, it looked as if Rockford was going to continue its streak, as the team scored three goals in the first 5 minutes of the game.
1:51 into the game, Jimmy Hayes potted his fifth of the season. Hayes initially took the puck into the offensive zone and rifled a shot on Stars netminder Jack Campbell. A rebound bounced out and Ben Smith was in front of the net to fire off another shot. Campbell blocked this one as well, but Hayes was quick to locate the puck and put it in the net for an early 1-0 lead.
Marcus Kruger extended the lead to 2-0 less than 2 minutes later on the power play. Brandon Saad put a shot on goal and the rebound came out to Kruger, who was on the back door to hammer home his fourth marker of the year.
Hayes would score his second of the night just more than a minute later to give Rockford a 3-0 lead with 4:37 expired. Smith dished the puck to Shawn Lalonde, who made a perfect cross-ice feed to Hayes, who had an open net to deposit the puck.
But Texas started to mount a comeback, tallying two second-period markers to make it a 3-2 affair after the first period.
By the time the second period was winding down, Texas had a 4-3 lead and had Rockford reeling after they had given up four unanswered goals.
Shortly after Rockford relinquished the lead, Andrew Shaw brought the ’Hogs back into the mix, scoring his fourth of the season to tie the game at 4-4. The powerplay goal was Rockford’s second of the night.
However, Rockford’s power play couldn’t match the success of Texas’s power play. Colton Sceviour scored at 9:02 of the third power play to reclaim the lead for Texas, marking their third goal on three powerplay attempts, putting the ’Hogs PK unit at a pathetic 0-for-3 for the game.
Sceviour’s goal turned out to be the difference-maker as Rockford was unable to even things up, despite outshooting Texas 12-3 in the third period, and 37-19 overall.
After a stellar weekend series the previous weekend in Lake Erie, Alec Richards looked more human in net against Texas, and earned his second loss of the season.
Rockford headed out to the Allstate Arena the following night for a matchup against the division rival Chicago Wolves. The ’Hogs haven’t had much success this year against Chicago, with the closest game coming on opening night when the game ended in a 1-0 shootout win for the Wolves.
Things didn’t start out for Rockford as they did the previous night. In fact, Chicago would strike first, 1:13 into the game. What appeared to be a misplay of the puck by Rockford led to an easy goal for Zack Kassian. The puck was being fought for on the boards, and Andrew Ebbett flushed the puck out to the center of the ice, where Kassian was the only player. He shot the puck low and quick to beat Carter Hutton, putting Chicago up early.
It wasn’t until more than halfway through the second period that we would see our next goal, which was another one for the Wolves. The goal was a great setup after a quick up-ice rush, and was scored 1 second after Chicago’s power play ended by Jordan Schroeder.
Rockford finally got on the board just more than a minute after the Wolves increased their lead to 2-0. Saad brought the puck into the offensive zone on a rush and dished a great pass to ’Hogs captain Martin St. Pierre, who ripped a quick shot past Matt Climie to pull Rockford to within one.
The ’Hogs were awarded their fifth power play at 4:25 of the third period, and tallied their first with the man advantage of the night. Saad once again factored into the goal, as he fired a shot on net with Jeremy Morin parked in front. Climie let out a rebound, and Morin was there to bang it home to tie the game at 2-2.
Less than a minute after their game-tying powerplay goal, Rockford was awarded another powerplay opportunity, and once again struck gold. This time, it was Smith who tallied the marker after another rebound cleanup. This time, it was a Brett Lebda shot that Smith put home to give Rockford their first lead of the game.
An empty-net goal by Shaw with 33 seconds left sealed the deal for Rockford, as the ’Hogs rebounded from their tough loss the night before to take a rare win at the Allstate Arena. Surprisingly, there was a large contingency of ’Hogs and Chicago Blackhawks fans cheering on Rockford, which must be attributed to the continued NHL lockout.
The start of December had Rockford traveling to Charlotte, N.C., for a tough weekend series against the Charlotte Checkers. Prior to the start of the series, the Checkers held first place in the South Division, and second overall in the conference with an impressive 12-5-0-2 record and 26 points. The Checkers also brought in the AHL’s top powerplay unit on the season, along with goaltender Dan Ellis (whom Rockford would see on the second night of the double-header), who was recently named the AHL Player of the Week for his outstanding performance in net. On the bright side, Charlotte was riding a season-long two-game losing streak, which the ’Hogs hoped to extend.
Once again, Rockford let their opponent get out to an early lead, with a goal 1:57 into the contest.
The Checkers’ aforementioned top powerplay unit would strike on the first opportunity of the game, as Zach Boychuck scored his 13th goal in this early season at 11:26 to put Charlotte up 2-0 quickly.
Rockford made some good second-period adjustments, holding the Checkers to eight second-period shots while firing off an impressive 17 of their own. Even more impressive was Rockford tying their season record for the most goals scored in a period with four.
In a matter of 5 minutes, Rockford turned their 0-2 deficit to a 3-2 lead, starting at 4:37 of the second period.
St. Pierre got the scoring started for Rockford, notching his sixth goal of the season; a one-timer shot fed from Hayes, who fought for a loose puck behind the net to cut the lead in half.
Saad tied the game just more than 2 minutes later with a feed from Morin.
Smith capitalized on the power play less than 3 minutes after Rockford’s previous goal, as a stunned crowd watched Rockford take a 3-2 lead in just more than 5 minutes.
But Rockford wasn’t done scoring yet. St. Pierre tallied his second of the night, with Hayes once again delivering the primary assist. The goal, scored at 15:35 of the second period, was Rockford’s fourth goal in 10:49.
Standing tall on the other end for Rockford was Hutton in net. On two different occasions in the period, Hutton made some excellent stops on some second and even third chance attempts by the Checkers to keep Rockford in the lead. Even Charlotte’s radio announcer was astonished by Hutton’s game play, questioning how the puck never made it to the back of the net.
Morin put the nail in the coffin just past the midway point of the third period with his team-leading ninth of the season. Morin was stationed in front of the net and cleaned up a Kruger shot to put the game out of reach at 5-2.
Both teams met up again the following day for a 2 p.m. matinée game.
Rockford made it through the first few minutes unscathed, unlike their previous two games, which was a great feat, seeing as how Rockford was under the gun of a 5-on-3 power play for 56 seconds against the AHL’s top-ranked powerplay unit.
In fact, Rockford would turn the special team’s tide to their favor and score on their first powerplay opportunity of the game, coming at 11 minutes of the opening frame. Adam Clendening, who has been an offensive juggernaut (especially for a defenseman) for the team, tallied his fourth on the campaign to put Rockford up 1-0.
Kyle Beach added to the lead at 15:56 of the second period to put Rockford up 2-0. The snipe shot by Beach came less than 2 minutes after he exited the penalty box for a tripping penalty.
As the game wore on, Charlotte continued firing shots in on Hutton, but after two periods, Hutton had stopped all 18 shots and stymied the high-powered Charlotte offense.
Brett Sutter finally solved Hutton with a marker at 7:23 of the third period to cut Rockford’s fragile 2-1 lead in half.
After being denied on an earlier shot, Brandon Pirri, who has been quiet as of late, scored on a snipe shot at 13:36 of the final frame to once again give Rockford a two-goal lead at 3-1.
St. Pierre tallied his fourth goal in three games with an empty-net marker with 1:21 left in the game to seal an impressive 4-1 win for the IceHogs.
After Rockford’s Sunday win in Charlotte, the IceHogs took sole possession of first place in the Midwest Division, edging out the Grand Rapids Griffins by 1 point. However, the Griffins have three games in hand on Rockford as they sit 1 point behind the IceHogs at 24 points, and 3 ahead of the third-place Chicago Wolves. The win also gave Rockford a 7-3-0-0 record in their last 10 games, which is good for fourth place in the AHL in the past 10 games for any team.
Another key statistic shows Rockford first in the Western Conference in goals with 73, which is good for second place in the AHL behind the Syracuse Crunch, who sit at 74. However, Rockford’s 67 goals against ranks them as the third worst in the Western Conference, and 24th out of 30 teams in the AHL.
Keys for the week
1. Playing tough on the road — Just like the weekend prior, Rockford played hard against difficult opponents while on the road. First, a rare win at the Allstate Arena, and then two straight against a tough, high-scoring Charlotte team.
2. Fighting a full 60 minutes — This may sound foolish, but when a team plays hard for a full 60 minutes, it shows. Rockford did exactly that, and also managed a few late empty-net goals to seal the games. Countless times have teams let up in the waning minutes of a game only to lose. A perfect example was this same week when the Milwaukee Admirals scored two goals in the last 85 seconds of the game to overcome a 2-1 deficit and defeat the Chicago Wolves 3-2.
Going into week nine, Rockford plays three key divisional matchups. The first game, Friday, Dec. 7, takes place at the BMO Harris Bank Center against the Milwaukee Admirals. The ’Hogs remain home the following night, Saturday, Dec. 8, and play host to the Chicago Wolves for the team’s annual Teddy Bear Toss game. Fans are encouraged to bring a stuffed animal to the game and toss it onto the ice when Rockford scores their first goal of the game. All stuffed animals collected will be donated to various charities around the Rockford area. Sunday, Dec. 9, the IceHogs head to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the third game in three days to face the Grand Rapids Griffins.
From the Dec. 5-11, 2012, issue