By Todd Reicher
With all of the talent on the Rockford IceHogs, one would think the ‘Hogs would be in a better position in the league than dead last, but as of January 15, that’s exactly where Rockford stands.
The IceHogs are stacked with a mix of prospects and veterans, many whom have played, or will play, for the Chicago Blackhawks. Starting with the back end, you have Viktor Svedberg (who is now out of the lineup due to injury), Gustav Forsling and Erik Gustafsson who have all had time in Chicago. You also have Ville Pokka who is as close to ready to go to Chicago as can be. Mix in Cameron Schilling, who is in his fifth year of professional hockey, and you have a solid, seasoned defensive group.
On the forward side, you have some other guys who have played in Chicago for at least one game with Spencer Abbott, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz (who was recently recalled to Chicago due to an illness with Artem Anisimov) leading your top line, and Jake Dowell, Sam Carrick, P.C. Labie, Mark McNeill and Brandon Mashinter who have all had time in the NHL.
So why is this team struggling on both ends of the ice? One could speculate locker room issues or player mentality, but it all comes down to execution. Friday’s overtime loss to the San Diego Gulls is a prime example of what this team is capable of.
Kyle Baun tallied the only goal of the first period on the power play, assisted by Pokka and Schmaltz, to give Rockford a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, despite being outshot 9-6. Despite being outshot, Rockford kept the Gulls outside most of the period, limiting them to low-percentage shots, which Mac Carruth was easily able to see.
The second period, however, was a different story. As has been all season, Rockford struggled to keep the opposition off the board and the Gulls put two on the board while holding the ‘Hogs scoreless to take a 2-1 lead into the third.
Rockford had their chances in the middle frame, with Motte getting in on a tight breakaway, only to slide the puck just outside the left post, and another shot going off the iron. As an interesting stat, as of Sunday, Rockford ranks first in the AHL in shots taken in the second period, yet they sit at the bottom in last place with goals allowed and goal differential in that same period.
The third period showed what this team is capable of doing. Down by a goal, Rockford carried the pace in the period pouring on 14 shots and hemming the Gulls in the own zone for long stretches of time as they cycled the puck. Luke Johnson was rewarded for his hard work as he picked up a loose puck and buried the shot with 7:36 expired in the period to tie the score at 2-2. Up to this point of the game, Rockford was leading in shots for the period 6-1, with a majority of the time spent in the offensive zone.
Neither team was able to tally another goal in the third, so we went to overtime, where it appeared the game was over just 10 seconds into extra hockey. The Gulls lost the faceoff and their center lost his balance, allowing Rockford a quick entry into the zone. Motte made a power move around the defenseman and came in hard to the net. Motte appeared to be pushed towards the net and made his best attempt to get out of the way as the puck slide to his right. Dowell was there to grab the puck and loft it into the net for an apparent goal. However, the referee on the right wing waved the goal off due to goaltender interference, which was held up after video replay. 30 seconds later, the puck was in the other net as Brandon Montour scored his second of the game under the legs of Carruth for the game-winner.
The following night Rockford was outmatched by the best team in the Western Conference, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Rockford surrendered four goals in 15 shots through the first 21 minutes of the game to take a commanding 4-0 lead and signaling the end of Carruth for the game.
Lars Johansson came on in relief and played well in relief, allowing only one goal in 19 shots against. After giving up the early second period goal, Rockford played a very strong offensive game while holding the Griffins to only five shots in the second period while Johnasson was in net.
At 13:12 of the second period, Rockford finally got on the board when Evan Mosey ripped a shot past Cal Heeter to give Rockford a glimmer of hope.
That glimmer got a little brighter just over two minutes later when Baun scored his seventh of the season, and second in two games, to close the gap to 4-2.
Rockford had some prime chances in the third period, but missed shots and some excellent saves by Heeter kept the score at 4-2. Nolan Valleau had two big chances, but missed the net on one shot and had a two-on-one shot attempt blocked away by Heeter at the last minute.
Ben Street extended the Griffins lead five minutes into the period with his 11th of the season, putting Grand Rapids up 5-2.
Rockford was unable to counter the Griffins goal and fell 5-2 to the division-leading Griffins for the fifth time this season, after winning the first matchup in Grand Rapids.
On Monday the IceHogs got their revenge, beating Grand Rapids 3-1.
Rockford won’t return for a home game until January 27. The IceHogs will head to Cleveland for a two-game series against the Monsters on Wednesday and Friday, and will then head to San Antonio for two more road games which take place on Sunday, January 22 and Wednesday, January 25.