Tales from the Trough: IceHogs’ week 11 and 12 recap

Rockford IceHogs goaltender Carter Hutton denies Milwaukee Admirals forward Chris Mueller on a breakaway attempt Dec. 29. Hutton only allowed one goal against Milwaukee as the ’Hogs were victorious 4-1. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

Since the last issue of “Tales,” Rockford has played quite a few games, and it would require quite a bit of patience by you readers to digest all of the information from those games. Instead of a game recap, I’m going to write up a short recap of the few prior weeks and point out certain areas of Rockford’s play over the holiday break.

The ’Hogs had a three-game home stand from Dec. 22 to Dec. 29 before going on a three-game road trip. As hoped, Rockford played well during the home stand, going 3-0 including two key wins against divisional opponents Milwaukee and Chicago.

Unfortunately, Rockford turned around and lost three straight, starting with a loss against the first-place Grand Rapids Griffins. Later that week, Rockford would lose in Hamilton against the Bulldogs, followed by a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Marlies.

Historically, Rockford has had the upper hand against the Griffins, but are struggling against them this season. The ’Hogs have also had very little success against the Bulldogs, and that trend continued with a loss last week in Hamilton.

So, what has Rockford done, or not done, in the last few weeks? Now, I can’t speak much for the road games, as I did not have the chance to watch every minute of those games, but I can certainly state what I noticed at the home games. Accordingly, it is harder to judge a game that is televised, as the cameras tend to follow the puck, and there is so much that happens away from the puck to give a proper “scout” report as to what did or did not transpire.

Now, for the home games, there were a number of items that stood out to me, including the following:

1. In all three home games, Rockford was consistently getting into the opponents’ shooting lanes, which resulted in blocked shots or forcing the other team to look for an outlet pass.

2. Quick up-ice transitions that resulted in more odd-man rushes. This is mostly because of more fluid and precise passing than we have seen in the past few seasons.

3. In conjunction with No. 2 above, having the puck transition quickly means less time in the defensive zone, which results in a smaller number of opportunities to turn the puck over in their own end, which is something the ’Hogs have struggled with this season.

4. Keeping opponents to lower shot totals through a majority of the first half of the period.

To elaborate on No. 4, in at least two of the home games, and most of the third game, Rockford was not allowing their opponents to get a shot on goal until 3, 4, sometimes 10 minutes into the period. This goes along with No. 1, and the importance of blocking those shooting lanes.

It’s hard to say what Rockford was doing wrong in any of those home games as the ’Hogs held their opponents to five total goals in those three games; two for Abbotsford and Chicago and one for Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee goal was scored on a five-on-three power play, which was the first five-on-three Rockford has given up this season in more than 13 attempts. If anything, I would say Rockford’s penalty kill was the weakest link, giving up at least one power-play goal in each one of those games. And as we all know, Rockford is one of the most penalized teams in the league, so you can draw your own conclusions here.

Another story that just developed was the announcement of a tentative agreement between the NHL owners and the NHLPA (NHL Players Association). This agreement has ended the lockout, and although a date has not been set for play to resume, it is believed play could start as early as Jan. 15.

What does this mean for Rockford? Well, it will probably mean that players like Nick Leddy, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger go back to the Blackhawks, but there is also a possibility that Brandon Saad, Ben Smith or Brandon Bollig go up as well. At this point, it is anyone’s guess, but I would think it is a safe bet to say that Kruger and Leddy go back.

How does this affect the team? Losing Leddy means you lose a power-play captain and a good puck-moving defenseman with good speed. With the emergence of Adam Clendening, the loss will not be as tough, but Clendening has shown that he isn’t the most responsible in his own end, and still has some rookie wrinkles to iron out.

Losing Kruger would mean the loss of a good PK member and a good face-off man. Granted, we still have great forwards like Brandon Pirri and Smith who can take a faceoff, and with good success, but you can never have too many good face-off guys.

In others such as Bollig and Shaw, you lose a gritty edge, toughness and more PK players. You also lose someone who does not fear standing in front of the net to screen the other goalie. I think those roles can be filled with guys like Smith (if he stays) Martin St. Pierre and Ryan Stanton (except you won’t see Stants in front of the net), to name a few. Again, this is all speculation, and who knows who the Blackhawks are going to call up?

Now, what about the other teams and who gets called up for them? I can honestly say I do not follow all of the other teams as much as I follow Rockford, but I think one of the obvious teams that will be hurt is the Oklahoma City Barons. With stars such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle leaving, the team is going to be down quite a bit of offensive firepower. In fact, Eberle and Hall are first and sixth, respectively, in scoring in the AHL with Eberle carrying an astounding 51 points (25 goals, 26 assists) in only 34 games, and Hall with 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in only 26 games.

Just because a team loses a top scorer doesn’t mean the team is going to fall off the map, but losing skill of that magnitude will affect all other players on the team just like a domino effect.

So, what can we expect going forward if the lockout ends in January? In Rockford’s case, I think the team will be very solid still, as many of the players on this team have been together and know each other and their playing style very well. Some teams will be hurt badly, others not so much, but I think the lockout ending is not only a good thing for Rockford going forward, but also a good thing for the players and the fans.

Looking forward

Week 14 has Rockford at home for two key matchups against the division-leading Grand Rapids Griffins. The first game takes place Wednesday, Jan. 9, and the rematch two days later Friday, Jan. 11. Rockford then heads up to Milwaukee for a Saturday game against the Admirals before coming home for a season-long five-game home stand.

From the Jan. 9-15, 2013, issue

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