By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — It took a five-hour affair, but the Rockford IceHogs completed a three-game sweep of the Chicago Wolves and now head to Winnipeg to face the Manitoba Moose in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
IceHogs rookie Victor Ejdsell notched the winning goal in triple overtime last Thursday to knock top-seeded Chicago out of the postseason.
With less than three minutes left in the third overtime, Ejdsell beat Maxime Lagace from the right-wing circle at the end of a Rockford power play. The goal was Ejdsell’s second of the contest. The game was the longest in IceHogs history and the eighth-longest in the American Hockey League.
“I threw it to the net kind of high and it went in,” Ejdsell said of the game-winner.
Ejdsell was traded to the Blackhawks Feb. 26 as part of the Ryan Hartman deal with Nashville. He reported to Rockford March 21 and was recalled by Chicago March 25 at the tail end of the NHL season.
“It’s fun,” he added. “I got a second chance to play in the playoffs. But it’s been tough as well. The game is different, the rink is different, so I still have to adapt.”
Before coming to the United States Ejdsell logged a 20-goal season with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League. He signed an entry-level deal with the Predators last May but opted to remain in Sweden to develop his game.
While the quick work of the Wolves was a monumental feat for the IceHogs, it was Manitoba who ran away with the division for most of the 2017-18 campaign. The Moose relinquished first place down the stretch, however, as the Winnipeg Jets skated into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and took some top-prospects with them. The Moose also failed to close the door on the top spot as Chicago, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee and Rockford made late runs that could have seen any of the four playoff contenders win the Central.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” forward Tanner Kero said. “It’s going to be a tough series, so we need to prepare and focus on the weekend.”
The weekend starts Friday night at the Bell MTS Place, an arena the Moose share with the Jets. Manitoba is coming off Game 5 trouncing of the Grand Rapids Griffins Monday. And even without a couple key players, the Moose are expected to be every bit as formidable as they were throughout the season.
“We’re still playing,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “There’s eight teams left when it’s all said and done, and that’s a special club to be part of. We’ll prepare the best we can. We like our team, so it’ll be fun.”
It may be difficult for the Rockford staff not like what they’ve seen since the IceHogs climbed out of the basement to grab the fourth playoff seed. After a hot start, Rockford sputtered a bit. The club lost six of eight games in mid-November, and suffered four-game losing streaks going into January and February. The ‘Hogs power play was the worst in the league for most of the season and a goaltender shakeup perpetuated by Corey Crawford’s injuries in Chicago saw a struggling young Collin Delia thrown into the AHL storm.
The Hogs responded by winning 12 of their last 19 games, a span that included a six-game win streak, and a point streak that spanned 14 contests. The Rockford power play is now a feared unit and Collin Delia is anything but the raw, ECHL netminder he was last fall.
The ‘Hogs scored multiple power-play goals in each of their three games against Chicago, combining for a 7-for-18, 38.9 percent on the man-advantage. Rockford’s power play had been at 13 percent. They have now scored 20 power-play goals over the last 16 games dating back to March 17 of the regular season.
Rockford netted three of its four goals in the second period Thursday, while allowing just one. The IceHogs have been outscored by a combined total of 5-4 through the first and third periods in the postseason but are outscoring opponents 6-1 in the second frame during the playoffs.
“Everyone’s contributing,” forward Chris DiDomenico said. “Everyone is battling for each other. That’s playoff hockey. And we are going to have to continue to do that. It’s always good to get the first playoff series out of the way but there’s three more to go, so it’s not going to be easy.”
DiDomenico notched three points Thursday, tying the IceHogs’ AHL franchise record for points in a playoff game. He now ranks eighth in the league with five points in three postseason tilts.
Ejdsell’s goals were his first AHL markers. He now has four points in his last two outings, giving the Karlstad, Sweden native momentum he says he’ll carry into the next series.
“This gives us confidence,” he said. “It’s been a tough series, but at the end of the day, we were the better team and we deserve it.”
Thursday’s sweep was Rockford’s second in the AHL playoffs. The first came in 2015 when Rockford did away with the defending Calder Cup champion Texas Stars at home.
The puck drops in Winnipeg at 7 p.m., Friday, for a best-of-seven series. Game 2 will also be in Manitoba before the series returns to the BMO Harris Bank Center for Game 3 on Wednesday, May 9, and Game 4 Friday, May 11. Both games start at 7 p.m.