Tales from the Trough: Rockford skates into all-star break on high note

Utica Comets goaltender Jacob Markstrom gets back just in time to fend off a shot by Rockford IceHogs forward Pierre Cedric Labrie during the second period of Saturday’s (Jan. 24) Pink the Rink Game. Labrie would later score the third goal of the game against Markstrom for his sixth goal of the season. (Photo by Todd Reicher)
Utica Comets goaltender Jacob Markstrom gets back just in time to fend off a shot by Rockford IceHogs forward Pierre Cedric Labrie during the second period of Saturday’s (Jan. 24) Pink the Rink Game. Labrie would later score the third goal of the game against Markstrom for his sixth goal of the season. (Photo by Todd Reicher)

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

After an up-and-down December and majority of January, the Rockford IceHogs head to the all-star break on the heels of two convincing victories.

Rockford’s first game of the week was a defensive road win in Iowa against the Wild on Thursday, Jan. 22. The last time Rockford faced Iowa, the ’Hogs handily defeated the Wild by the tune of a 4-0 shutout, courtesy of Scott Darling.

This time, it was Michael Leighton stealing the show, stopping all 23 shots he faced for his fourth shutout of the season.

Rockford dominated the first period, throwing 16 shots on net compared to a paltry three by Iowa. However, as he has done multiple times against Rockford this season, goaltender John Curry fought off every shot he faced.

The second period was much of the same. However, the Wild were not as overwhelmed in the shots-against category, with Rockford holding a narrow 13-10 advantage. Despite the large gap, both teams were still tied 0-0 heading into the final period.

A Danny Syvret penalty with 7:01 left in regulation left an opening for Rockford to score the first goal of the game. Rockford was 0-2 in their first two attempts, but made good on their third attempt 17 seconds into the advantage. Matt Carey, fed by T.J. Brennan and Garrett Ross, put in his seventh goal of the campaign.

Rockford had two penalties late in the game, and Iowa had a six-on-three advantage for the last 7 seconds of the game, but Rockford fought off the penalties en route to a 1-0 road win.

The IceHogs traveled back home to Rockford Saturday, Jan. 24, to host the Utica Comets for the annual Pink in the Rink game. As always, Rockford donned pink jerseys, and the ice was dyed pink.

This game would also feature two of the powerhouse teams from the Western Conference, with Rockford and Utica tied for second overall in the conference at 54 points. Both teams have been in a bit of a slump lately, and Utica was riding the heels of a three-game losing streak — their longest of the season.

Defenseman Klas Dahlbeck put Rockford on the board first with 1 second remaining on Rockford’s first power play of the evening. Phillip Danault won a face-off over to Ryan Hartman, who quickly cycled the puck back to Dahlbeck, who fired a laser from the point, beating one of the AHL’s best goaltenders through the first half of the season, Jacob Markstrom. The IceHogs outshot the Comets 13-8 in the first period.

Rockford extended its lead to 2-0 just shy of the middle point of the game. Fifteen seconds after Ross was sprung from the penalty boxes after sitting for a slashing penalty, the crafty forward scored his team-leading 14th goal of the season. Dennis Rasmussen grabbed the puck in the defensive zone and fed to Adam Clendening, who carried it up the ice. Ross got around and behind the defense, and Clendening made a slick pass through two defenders onto the tape of Ross’s stick. Ross made a few moves, went back to the forehand, and lifted the puck over the blocker of Markstrom for the 2-0 lead.

Prior to the goal, Rockford had two excellent chances on the penalty kill with P.C. Labrie getting stoned on a breakaway chance, and Markstrom making an excellent save on a Peter Regin one-timer when Rockford came down shorthanded with a three-on-one advantage.

Rockford took command of the game 3:52 into the third period with a Labrie snipe from the left face-off circle to extend the lead to 3-0. The checking-line forward caught Markstrom off guard with the quick wrist shot, which all but sealed the game for the ’Hogs.

An opportunity to put the game away with an abbreviated five-on-three advantage with 7:30 left in the game was missed when Utica played a perfect penalty kill. In fact, Scott Darling bailed out the ’Hogs multiple times during the penalty kill.

Utica poured on the shots late, but Darling was up to the task, stopping all 31 shots, including 15 third-period attempts, for his second shutout this season.

The IceHogs now head in to the all-star break with a record of 25-13-4-2, for 56 points and second in the Western Conference. After the break, Rockford will have 32 games remaining in the regular season, meaning if the ’Hogs finish the remainder of the season earning half of the available points, the team would sit at 88 points, which would most likely qualify the team for a playoff spot.

Rockford also goes in to the break with two of the top 10 goaltenders in the league, as far as best goals against average (GAA) is concerned, with Darling in 10th place at 2.13 and Leighton in fourth place, sporting a 2.02. Markstrom, who the IceHogs just put three goals on, sits in second place at 1.92, right behind Milwaukee’s Magnus Hellberg at 1.84.

After the break is over, Rockford will play its next five games against key Midwest Division opponents. The first two games are a home-and-home series against the Chicago Wolves. The first game of the double-header takes place at the BMO Harris Bank Center Friday, Jan. 30, followed by a Saturday game in Rosemont against the same Wolves.

The following week, Rockford has a home-and-home series with the streaking Milwaukee Admirals, winners of nine straight up to the all-star break, with the first game of the series taking place in Milwaukee Friday, Feb. 6. Both teams return back to Rockford the following night for the second game of the series.

View Todd Reicher’s photos from Rockford IceHogs games online at www.reicherstudios.com/Sports/HockeyPhotos or on his Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/ReicherStudios.

Posted Jan. 27, 2015

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