By Todd Reicher
With first place in the Central Division on the line, the Rockford IceHogs lost a home-and-home series against the Milwaukee Admirals to fall out of first place for the first time in over two months.
The first game of the series took place on Friday, February 6 in Milwaukee.
Rockford got the scoring underway late in the first period, moments after a Rockford penalty kill expired. Cody Bass was released from hockey jail with 2:15 left in the period and defenseman Klas Dahlbeck spotted Bass coming out of the box. The gritty forward put his first goal of the season behind Marek Mazanec for the 1-0 lead.
After the first period goal, it was all Milwaukee on the scoreboard. Left winger Kevin Fiala scored his first of the season 4:16 into the period with a go-ahead goal scored by Zach Budish at 8:53 to put the Ads up 2-1, which carried through the second period.
Milwaukee put an exclamation point early in the final period with a power play goal at 1:25 of the final frame to put the Ads up 3-1.
An empty net goal by ex-Chicago Blackhawks winger Viktor Stalberg with 1:08 left in the game sealed a 4-1 victory.
The following night both teams reacquainted themselves for the second game of the series, and both teams were going at it before the puck even dropped. Michael Liambis came to center ice and slashed Pierre-Cedric Labrie a few times in the shin pads, leading to both teams gathering in front of the penalty boxes. Although nothing came about, the tone was set for the game.
Milwaukee was the first to tally a goal, coming off the stick of Brendan Leipsic early in the first, on Milwaukee’s first shot of the game. The power play goal came at 1:32 of the opening period.
Speedy Stalberg got behind the Rockford defense and tallied a shorthanded goal less than three minutes later to go up 2-0 with three shots on goal. Consequently, Scott Darling was pulled from the game to be replaced by Michael Leighton.
The change ignited the Rockford offense as Mark McNeill tallied a power play goal for himself to cut the Milwaukee lead in half.
As the first period was winding down, Stalberg scored his second of the night, and third in two nights against Rockford, to reclaim a two-goal advantage for the Ads.
Phillip Danault was rewarded for his hard work with a lucky bounce, 8:45 into the second frame on a shorthanded goal, cutting the lead once again to a single goal. As Danault came in hard on the forecheck, Milwaukee goaltender Mazanec rested the puck down behind the net. Danault met up with the Ads defender behind the net and fought for the puck. The rubber bounced off a body, then off Mazanec and into the net.
Stalberg would haunt the ‘Hogs again later in the period netting the hat trick goal on the power play with 3:25 remaining in the period to give Milwaukee another two-goal lead. The shot was only the second shot of the period for the Ads, yet after two periods and only accumulating 12 shots on net, they had four goals to show.
More of the same took place in the final period with the teams trading goals multiple times. Triston Grant scored at 8:17 of the period to bring Milwaukee up by a score of 5-2, but Jamie Wise bounced a puck off Mazanec 55 seconds later to close the gap to a 5-3 margin.
With Rockford playing aggressive on the offensive side, Austin Watson got behind the Rockford defense and popped his team-leading 17th of the year behind Leighton to give the Ads another three-goal cushion.
Rockford fought hard, and the checking line of Ryan Schnell, Drew LeBlanc and Ryan Hartman were rewarded for their hard work with a Schnell marker with 3:18 in regulation.
A similar line grabbed another marker with only 15 seconds remaining on the clock, with Leighton on the bench, to close the gap to a single goal.
But with Leighton on the bench, Milwaukee won a key neutral zone face-off, and sent the puck into the empty Rockford net with 10 seconds remaining to seal a 7-5 victory.
The game featured a series of fights, with Labrie and Grant getting into a tussle and Liambis jumping Bass to mark the first period fights.
Hartman was involved with Gerard, and T.J. Brennan attempted to drop the mitts with Liambis, however, the mouthy forward walked away from the fight as it would have meant a game misconduct for getting into his second fight of the evening. Instead, Brennan was sent to the box for Delay of Game, and Liambis went away free.
All-in-all, Milwaukee got away with a few they shouldn’t have, but Rockford did not do themselves any favors with their sloppy defensive play.
With the win, Milwaukee moved to first place in the Midwest Division, and the ‘Hogs slipped all the way back to fifth in the conference.
Rockford’s schedule does not get any easier with yet another game against the Milwaukee Admirals in the first of a three game weekend. After the Friday night game in Milwaukee, Rockford heads back home for a Saturday game against the Western Conference leading Oklahoma City Barons, followed by a matinee game hosting the San Antonio Rampage, who sit one spot ahead of Rockford in fourth.