By Todd Reicher
Exclusive to TRRT
Despite seeing their winning streak halted the Rockford IceHogs turned up the heat on the Western Conference this past week as they continued to rack up wins.
Rockford closed the gap on the Western Conference title to one point as they battle the Grand Rapids Griffins for the Midwest Division crown.
The IceHogs are guaranteed home ice advantage for the first round and will finish no lower than fourth place in the Conference, and can finish as high as first.
In the meantime, the Utica Comets have wrapped up the North Division, and the San Antonio Rampage have locked up the West Division.
Rockford started the week by winning a 5-3 game against the Iowa Wild.
In his first professional game, recently assigned forward Tanner Kero scored his first professional goal just 4:56 into the game.
Shortly past the midway point of the second period, NHL veteran Ruslan Fedotenko picked up his third goal of the season to even things up at 1-1.
Mark McNeill pulled Rockford ahead later in the period with his 21st marker of the campaign to put the ‘Hogs ahead 2-1 after 20 minutes. Rockford was in control of the game and held a 16-6 shots on goal advantage.
Terry Broadhurst continued his solid play after his return from injury notching his fifth tally of the season 47 seconds into the second period.
Iowa made a game of it as Stephane Veilleux tallied two straight second period markers to pull the Wild even at 3-3.
Around 40 seconds after Veilleux’s second goal, Grayson Downing was sent to the box for hooking and Dennis Rasmussen used the power play advantage to score his 13th of the season and put Rockford ahead 4-3.
Red-hot Spencer Abbott potted his 17th goal of the season unassisted with 1:34 left in the second to give Rockford a little cushion and a 5-3 lead heading into the final frame.
Despite Iowa tripling Rockford in shots 21-7 the IceHogs managed three goals to Iowa’s two.
Both teams traded shots in the final frame but neither team tallied another marker as Rockford took a 5-3 win with them to Charlotte.
In the first game against the Checkers it was Rockford pitching a 2-0 shutout in front of 13,219 fans.
A scoreless first period saw Drew MacIntyre stopping all 10 first period IceHogs shots and Antti Raanta blocking away four Charlotte attempts.
The Checkers had better quality chances in the second with Raanta making some key saves, including a breakaway glove save, but Rockford was the only team to tally a goal. On their third power play attempt of the game it was none other than Abbott getting the goal for Rockford. A perfect no-look pass from Ryan Hartman set up Abbott on the back door for an easy tap-in and the 1-0 lead.
Rockford’s lead would stand until the final 33 seconds of the game when Mark McNeill dropped the puck into an empty net, assisted unselfishly by Hartman, to give Rockford the 2-0 victory.
Raanta was the first star of the game after stopping all 25 shots he faced. MacIntyre was second star having stopped 33 of 34.
The following afternoon both teams met for the second straight day with a matinee 1 p.m. game. In a surprise move, IceHogs head coach Ted Dent held out quite a few starters to rest for the players. Notable absences were Abbott, Peter Regin, Kyle Cumiskey and Ville Pokka.
With a chance to overtake the Griffins and take control of the Midwest Division, one would have thought Dent would keep his key players active, especially considering the chemistry between Regin and Abbott as of late.
Rockford jumped out to the quick 1-0 lead with Karo getting the first tally. The goal, 1:48 into the first period and his second in as many appearances, was assisted by newcomer Calle Dahlstrom and Brandon Mashinter.
That goal was followed up 5:30 later by Phillip Danault to give Rockford a 2-0 lead on four shots.
But as fast as Rockford took a 2-0 lead the Checkers took it away even faster. Patrick Brown and Justin Shugg scored 1:33 seconds apart to even the score up at 2-2.
After a fast-paced, high-scoring first period the second period was marred with penalties and zero goals. Despite three power play opportunities the IceHogs could not solve goalie Rasmus Tirronen.
The Checkers were also held scoreless on their only attempt as both teams headed off to the locker room still tied at 2-2.
The Checkers doubled up Rockford in the shots column in the middle frame, 14-7, despite the fact they were shorthanded three times.
With the third period tied 2-2 the Checkers took advantage of a Dane Walters tripping penalty to convert on the power play and take their first lead of the series, 3-2.
It appeared the IceHogs were headed for a loss but a late penalty shot awarded to Mashinter gave Rockford some hope. As Mashinter was alone on his way in for a 1-on-1, he was pulled down, toppled into the net and awarded a penalty shot.
Mashinter grabbed the puck at center ice, skated in slowly and fired a puck five-hole. At first it appeared the puck was stopped, but as goaltender Tirronen slid backwards the puck came out from under his pads and across the line tying the game at 3-3.
It looked as though there was no chance Rockford would give up a fourth goal after coming back and outplaying Charlotte in the third. Then, it happened. Brock McGinn fired home his 14th goal of the season with 3:39 left in the game to give Charlotte a 4-3 lead.
A late Checkers penalty with 1:30 remaining gave Rockford some hope. The ‘Hogs pulled Michael Leighton for the extra attacker and fired shot after shot at the Tirronen, but the rookie, getting his first professional start, stopped every attempt.
Another penalty against the Checkers with three seconds remaining gave Rockford a final shimmer of hope but Rockford could not convert and dropped to Charlotte 4-3.
The regular season wraps up this week with Rockford playing three straight home games. The first of the three games is a third straight game against the Charlotte Checkers tonight followed by a meeting against the Chicago Wolves on Friday and the Toronto Marlies for the regular season finale on Saturday.
With the last week of the regular season, Rockford will need a little help to win the Division. If the IceHogs can win their final three games, and Grand Rapids finishes with at least one loss, the Midwest Division title will go to Rockford, as well as a top three seed.
If the IceHogs win out, and both San Antonio and Utica each lose two of their remaining games, Rockford will win the Western Conference title, and will have home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
With the playoffs looming it’s an exciting time to be an IceHogs fan, that’s for sure!