By Todd Reicher
This past weekend had been on the minds of many of the Rockford IceHogs players over the past few weeks. Players are taught to take it game-by-game and not look too far ahead, but it was hard not to notice three games in three days against the same team — especially when that team was a division rival, the Milwaukee Admirals.
Prior to the start of the weekend, Milwaukee was 5 points ahead of Rockford with four games in hand, so Rockford needed some wins. Whenever teams face the same team multiple times in a short period, there’s a greater chance guys are going to get agitated with one another.
“Tempers might flare. Who knows what will happen?” said IceHogs goaltender Jason LaBarbera prior to the start of the series.
The first game of the series took place Friday, Jan. 24, in Milwaukee at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Kent Simpson got the nod in net for Rockford, and played a very solid first period, stopping all 17 shots faced. On the flip side, Marek Mazanec was peppered with 14 shots, stopping all but one, the last shot he faced in the period.
Mark McNeill potted his 12th of the season with 30 seconds remaining in the period to give Rockford the lead. The power-play goal was assisted by Brandon Mashinter and Garret Ross.
With the ’Hogs looking to capitalize on their second-straight power-play opportunity, Colton Sissons took advantage of a Rockford miscue and scored a shorthanded, unassisted goal 2:11 into the second frame.
Just more than 2 minutes later, another Rockford miscue led to Austin Watson tallying his 10th goal of the season.
Milwaukee completed the trifecta at 9:17 with their third unanswered goal of the period courtesy of Mark Van Guilder.
The Ads continue to edge out Rockford in the shots department after two periods, holding a 28-19 advantage with Rockford only accruing five second-period shots.
With Adam Clendening in the box at 14:39 of the final frame, Milwaukee looked to put the final nail in the coffin, but Brandon Pirri turned the tide with a shorthanded goal, cutting the lead to 1.
Rockford was unable to capitalize on a late power-play opportunity, and Clendening took a tripping penalty with 30 seconds remaining to smash Rockford’s hope of a comeback, and the Ads sank the ’Hogs 3-2.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Milwaukee held the head-to-head advantage, up on Rockford 3-1 in their four meetings this season.
The series moved to Rockford for the Saturday game, for Rockford’s annual Pink in the Rink night. It was also the second-largest crowd during the AHL-era for the team with 6,504 fans packed into the BMO Harris Bank Center.
For the second game in a row, the visiting team scored first. Vinny Saponari made two nice moves, causing two Rockford defenders to slide down in an attempt to block the shot, and slid a low backhanded shot under LaBarbera for the only goal in the first.
An unexpected delay had fans, and players, waiting more than an hour for the second period. After the ice crew scraped and resurfaced the ice, as they normally do between periods, the officials and skaters came out to what was deemed unsafe conditions, and forced the crew to clear all of the pink dye off the ice.
Once the ice was set, players came back out and were given 5 minutes to stretch and take a few more warm-up shots before resuming the game.
The delay helped Rockford more than Milwaukee, as Rockford dominated the second with a 12-4 shots-on-goal advantage, and Milwaukee taking five-straight penalties.
It wasn’t until late in the second that Rockford would even the score with a power-play goal. The ’Hogs were already on a power play, but a delayed penalty sent LaBarbera to the bench, giving Rockford a six-on-four advantage. Brad Winchester, stationed in front of the net, redirected a Pirri shot from the right boards, tying the game for Rockford.
The third period was closer, and played much faster than the second, with players flying up and down the ice, as a result of limited whistles and goalies not holding onto the puck.
With just more than 3 minutes left, Pirri received the puck in the defensive zone and flipped it high in the air to middle ice in a clearing attempt. The puck sailed over some Milwaukee players and landed in front of Ross and Mashinter, who were in stride just shy of the offensive blue line, resulting in a two-on-one. Ross took initial possession and carried in on the right side. At the last moment, Ross fed Mashinter with a cross-crease pass, which Mashinter slid under Mazanec to give Rockford its first lead of the game.
Despite late pressure and an extra skater, Rockford held the Ads off the board and pulled out a 2-1 victory.
The following night, both teams traveled back to Milwaukee to meet for the third — and final — time this week. Unlike the previous two games, the home team was the first to score.
Saponari scored his second goal of the series at 12:38 to give Milwaukee the first lead. Jeremy Morin was unable to handle a pass in the neutral zone, which led to the goal.
Alex Broadhurst answered back with less than 3 minutes remaining, scoring an unusual unassisted goal. A shot on goal was fended away by Mazanec, who was starting his third game in three days, and the puck hit a broken stick on the ice. The puck took a funny bounce and was trapped under Mazanec, who slid into the net with the puck trapped under his pads.
Despite Rockford dominating the first period with a 20-6 shots advantage, both teams headed to the locker room tied 1-1.
Milwaukee once again scored two unanswered goals in the second to take a 3-1 advantage into the third period. Miikka Salomaki and Joonas Jarvinen scored after the midway point of the period to put the Ads on top.
Morin almost single-handedly put Rockford back into the game with two goals in 23 seconds. The first goal, with 2:20 expired in the third, was a snipe from the right face-off circle over the shoulder of Mazanec. The second goal was scored in transition from a two-on-one break with Broadhurst, and also came from the right face-off circle.
Clendening, who was a healthy scratch for game two of the series (most likely as punishment for his late penalties in game one) was the overtime hero with his sixth marker of the season with 21 seconds left. A blast from the right blue line fooled Mazanec, giving Rockford the overtime win 4-3.
Keys for the week
Rockford was very disciplined this weekend, taking only seven penalties in the series. The ’Hogs needed this, as Milwaukee is traditionally a well-coached team and does not take many penalties, meaning Rockford’s power play would not get many chances. Rockford was the more disciplined of the two clubs, as the Ads took eight penalties over the weekend with Rockford going two-for-eight with the advantage. In addition, Rockford’s typically poor penalty kill yielded only one goal against in seven attempts.
After a successful weekend series against the Admirals, the IceHogs travel to New York for the first time in a few years. Friday, Jan. 31, Rockford will face the Rochester Americans and then the Utica Comets on Saturday, Feb. 1.
The team returns home for four straight games, starting Tuesday, Feb. 4, against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
From the Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 2014, issue