By Todd Reicher
The month of December was not kind to Rockford, as the IceHogs showed a 5-6-2 record amid multiple injuries. Rockford’s leading point producer, Mark McNeill, was out for more than a month, and returned in the middle of December, along with Stephen Johns (who remains out of the lineup) and Garrett Ross, who missed five games.
Rockford’s final home game of the year 2014 ended up as a loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs in a close 2-1 contest.
The Tuesday, Dec. 30, match-up had Hamilton getting on the board first with a breakaway goal from leading rookie scorer Charles Hudon. The first-year winger caught possession of the puck on the right wing and carried it toward the net. The youngster fired the puck on the right side of the net, beating Rockford’s Scott Darling and giving the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
Rockford quickly matched the Hamilton goal with one of its own, courtesy of Dennis Rasmussen. The rookie from Sweden’s seventh goal of the season came 2:15 after Hamilton put the first points on the board.
Both teams had a good number of scoring chances in the second frame, but both goaltenders played well and stopped a combined 24 shots in the period.
Christian Thomas put the Bulldogs ahead once again with his ninth marker of the season 4:25 into the final period.
Rockford tried valiantly to notch the tying goal; however, goaltender Mike Condon fended off all 15 Rockford shots in the third period en route to a 40-save victory, 2-1.
The following night, Rockford made the drive up to Grand Rapids to face off against the Griffins for their final contest of 2014 with a New Year’s Eve game.
It didn’t take long for the Griffins’ leading scorer, Teemu Pulkkinen, to net his 18th goal of the season. The second-year winger scored just 34 seconds into the game on Michael Leighton, putting the Grifs up 1-0 early.
Rockford commanded the rest of the first period, out-shooting Grand Rapids by an astonishing 25-6. However, none of the those 25 shots was able to find its way past Jared Coreau, and the Griffins headed into the locker room up 1-0.
Grand Rapids scored the next goal of the game — an Andy Miele marker — at 4:23 of the second period to put Grand Rapids up 2-0, despite being heavily out-shot.
Matt Carey finally put one on the board for Rockford, a power-play marker at 8:15 of the frame to draw Rockford to within one goal.
Less than 2 minutes later, Ryan Hartman would pot the equalizing goal from a rebound of a T.J. Brennan shot.
That would be the rest of the scoring we would see, as both Leighton and Coreau stopped the remaining shots they faced in regulation.
During the overtime session, Rockford’s MVP was Leighton, who stopped all eight shots he faced, including multiple two-on-one chances and a breakaway. As opposed to the first period when Rockford lit up the Griffins on shots, Grand Rapids put up an 8-1 advantage in the overtime session.
We did not see our first puck stoppage until just more than 1 minute left in overtime, so both teams were skating with four skaters per side for a majority of the extra session.
After neither team managed to find the net, we would go to the shootout. The new AHL rules this season state that a shootout will only go three rounds, and it was a good thing for Rockford that it did.
Leighton managed to stop the Grand Rapids sharpshooters Pulkkinen, Miele and top prospect Anthony Mantha. Coreau halted shots from Carey and Teuvo Teravainen, but was unable to block the final shooter, Peter Regin, and Rockford came from behind for a hard-fought 3-2 overtime win.
After a few days off, Rockford traveled to Chicago for a match-up against the Midwest Division rival Chicago Wolves.
For the second game in a row, Rockford peppered the opposing netminder with shots in the first period, but came up empty-handed. Matt Climie fended off all 17 shots he faced in the first 20, and Leighton warded away seven Chicago shots. At one point in the period, Rockford was out-shooting Chicago 9-0.
The second period started off with a fortuitous bounce for the ’Hogs. McNeill fired a shot off toward Climie, which was blocked away. The rebound came right out and hit a Wolves defenseman and bounced right back past Climie and into the net for a 1-0 Rockford lead.
Rockford came through again late in the period with Klas Dahlbeck netting his third marker of the season. Throughout the later parts of the period, Rockford was getting numerous shots, and good chances, at Climie, but the Wolves goaltender fought off everything. Rockford’s Phillip Danault drove hard to the net and was unable to put the puck in on a close shot. The puck bounced out to the slot where Dahlbeck was driving hard to the net. The defenseman slapped it in to give Rockford a 2-0 lead late in the second.
After the end of 40 minutes, Rockford also held court on the shots on goal total, eclipsing Chicago 30-13. For reference, Chicago is one of the stingiest teams in that department, averaging roughly 25 allowed per game.
Chicago took it to Rockford early and often in the final period, going up 11-0 on shots against Rockford throughout the beginning part of the period. Leighton continued to stand tall and kept Rockford in the game. With time winding down, and Climie on the bench for the extra attacker, Garrett Ross, who just returned to the line-up in this game, potted an empty-net goal, assisted by McNeill, with 1:40 left in the contest to seal a Rockford win.
Leighton stopped 18 third-period shots, en route to his third shutout of the season, and 39th career AHL shutout, third all-time in the AHL. He now sits only two behind second-place Gil Mayer at 41, and six behind the all-time leader, Johnny Bower, at 45.
Rockford only plays two games this week — a home-and-home series against the Milwaukee Admirals. The first game of the series takes place Thursday, Jan. 8, in Milwaukee, and the second match-up is Friday, Jan. 9, at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, which will be the first of three straight home games for the IceHogs.
From the Jan. 7-13, 2015, issue