Tales from the Trough: IceHogs miss playoffs by 2 points

Rockford IceHogs wingers Jimmy Hayes (17) and Ben Smith (21) celebrate after a Rockford goal against the Texas Stars Nov. 27, 2012. Rockford traveled down to Texas and beat the Stars in the season finale 5-3, with Smith scoring two goals, including the game-winner. Since returning from injury four games ago, Smith has scored eight goals and three assists for 11 points in those four games. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

Rockford needed to take home two road wins in the Lone Star State to keep their playoff hopes alive, which is exactly what the IceHogs did. However, the Milwaukee Admirals won their final four contests, knocking the IceHogs out of the eighth, and final, playoff spot by 2 points.

To make matters worse, Rockford was going to have to make the trip without starting goaltender Carter Hutton, who was an emergency call-up to the Chicago Blackhawks to take the place of injured goaltender Ray Emery.

Rockford’s first of two road games came against the San Antonio Rampage Friday, April 19. Despite a winless record in the past seven games, the Rampage always play tough for Rockford, so the game was not going to be a walk in the park.

In a game of back-and-forth scoring, in quick succession nonetheless, it was Jimmy Hayes tallying first for Rockford 3:17 into the contest. Jeremy Morin set up the goal with a nice cross-ice pass to Hayes, who was waiting on the back door to tap in the pass for his 24th goal of the season.

Only 27 seconds transpired before San Antonio tied the game up. The Rampage came in transition with numbers, four-on-two, and a rebound let out by Henrik Karlsson gave Jack Combs his 16th marker of the year.

Just under 6 minutes later, the Rampage took their first, and last, lead of the game. Karlsson went down early to make a block, and Jared Gomes lifted a shot high to the left corner to beat Karlsson and put San Antonio up 2-1.

As mentioned earlier, there were numerous times when a goal was answered with another goal moments later. This time, it was Rockford tying the score 17 seconds after the Rampage took the lead. Rostislav Olesz took the puck deep in the Rockford zone and passed to Brandon Pirri, who shot the puck deep on the boards toward the Rampage zone, where Brad Mills caught up to it. Mills accelerated into the San Antonio zone, and fired a quick wrister that eluded Dov Grumet-Morris over the right blocker.

Rockford’s first powerplay attempt was successful with Ben Smith getting the tally. Morin fired a shot from just above the left circle, which was initially fought off by Grumet-Morris, but trickled behind him and out of his vision. Smith quickly located the puck before any Rampage player could find it and tapped in an easy goal.

Smith struck again early in the second to extend Rockford’s lead to 4-2. In transition, Olesz grabbed the puck and raced quickly into the Rampage zone one-on-one. Olesz dropped the pass back to a trailing Klas Dahlbeck, who had his shot blocked away by Grumet-Morris, but right to Smith for another tap-in goal.

Combs tallied his second of the night to pull San Antonio back to within one goal midway through the second as he slid behind the Rockford defense for a breakaway attempt.

But Rockford got the goal back 34 seconds later off a wrist shot from Brandon Svendsen. Maxime Sauve broke out of the Rampage zone with the puck and pulled up shy of the net, waiting for his trailer, Svendsen. The shot fired at the net appeared to redirect off a Rampage skater and found the back of the net for Svendsen’s fifth of the campaign.

The back-and-forth scoring continued with Zach Miskovic scoring his sixth of the season 76 seconds later. A shot from the blue line sailed through traffic and behind Karlsson to pull the Rampage back to within one.

Rockford would go on to score four times in the third to put the game away. Hayes tallied his second marker of the night at 4:46 of the third period to increase the lead to 6-4. A cross-ice pass from Smith allowed Hayes the opportunity to snipe a shot to the top corner of the net for the goal.

Under 2 minutes later, the ’Hogs would strike again, this time with Morin getting his team-leading 30th goal of the season. Joakim Nordstrom fought for — and won — a puck in the offensive zone over to Olesz, who carried the puck all the way to the Rampage zone. The Rampage were caught off guard, leading to a two-on-one for Rockford. Olesz found Morin on the opposite side of the net, and a one-timer by Morin put Rockford up 7-4.

San Antonio pulled Grumet-Morris early in hopes of staging a comeback, but Pirri tallied an unassisted empty-net goal with 5:12 left in the game to give Rockford a big 8-4 lead. But that wasn’t all the scoring for Rockford, as Sauve scored his first goal as an IceHogs skater just 18 seconds after the empty-net goal to give Rockford their highest goal total of the season in a 9-4 beating of the Rampage.

The following night, the IceHogs traveled to Cedar Park, Texas, to face the Western Conference-winning Texas Stars. Texas came into the game needing either 1 point or a Toronto Marlies loss to clinch the Western Conference, and Rockford came in needing a win to keep their playoff dreams afloat, so there was quite a bit riding on the final game of the regular season for both of these teams.

The first period was highlighted by both goaltenders making big saves and keeping their teams in the game. But a fluke of a goal put Texas on the board first, 11:57 into the opening period. Texas center Radek Faska won a faceoff back to Kevin Connauton, who rifled a shot into Karlsson to get the puck into the zone. The puck wound up deflecting off Karlsson’s stick in an awkward fashion, hit the the crossbar and into the back of the net. Rockford outshot Texas 17-12 in the first 20 minutes.

Texas added to their lead quickly, scoring two goals in 64 seconds to chase Karlsson from the game. Scott Glennie scored 22 seconds into the period off a juicy rebound let out by Karlsson, and Luke Gazdic scored 1:06 off another rebound to put Texas up 3-0. The third goal marked the end for Karlsson and gave an opening for rookie Kent Simpson to try to stop the bleeding.

Rockford finally answered at 8:41 of the second period to close the gap to 3-1. Rockford put a few shots on Cristopher Nilstorp in a good sequence, but lost the puck in their own zone. As Texas was trying to break out, Adam Clendening stole the puck, skated toward the net and fired a wrist shot to the top left corner past a screened Nilstorp.

The IceHogs were once again poised for a third-period come-from-behind victory as they entered the final 20 minutes down 3-1. But Rockford had a good stat on their side: every meeting between these two teams this season ended with the visiting team coming back from a three-goal deficit to win the game.

Martin St. Pierre started the comeback by pulling the ’Hogs to within one at 7:50 of the third. Once again, a giveaway by the Stars led to a free puck, which St. Pierre buried for his 26th of the season.

Rockford tied it up 43 seconds later, courtesy of Svendsen. The ’Hogs kept Texas trapped in their own zone with heavy pressure, leading to a tired defensive crew. A shot by Clendening bounced out to Svendsen, who was beside the net, and with Nilstorp way out of his crease, it gave Svendsen an open net in which to deposit his sixth goal this season.

Smith gave Rockford their first lead of the game under 3 minutes later. Steve Montador fed Pirri the puck, who took it all the way around the Texas net and found Smith open in the slot to fire home his 26th goal.

The same combo struck again with 2:25 left in the game to seal the win for Rockford. Montador dug the puck out of the corner and found Pirri on his left. Pirri carried the puck behind the net and Smith got around traffic to receive a puck from Pirri, which he backhanded into the net to give Rockford a 5-3 lead.

Texas pulled Nilstorp late, but neither team tallied a goal, and Rockford completed their league-leading 11th third-period come-from-behind victory of the season. Simpson played lights-out for Rockford after coming on in relief of Karlsson, stopping all 32 shots he faced for his first win of the season.

Rockford also achieved the second 50-plus shot outing of the season, firing a total of 54 shots on net. Texas also lit up the shots-on-goal with 47 of their own.

Despite Rockford winning their road games, the Milwaukee Admirals defeated the Chicago Wolves 2-0 at the Allstate Arena Saturday, April 20, and shut out the Peoria Rivermen 3-0 Sunday, April 21, to secure the eighth — and final — playoff spot, knocking Rockford out of contention and ending their season.

Looking forward

With the season now over for Rockford, I will have a few more postseason recap stories, along with a postseason interview with the voice of the IceHogs, Mike Peck, to wrap up the 2012-2013 season.

From the April 24-30, 2013, issue

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