By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – The 2017-18 season was a historic one for the Rockford IceHogs.
Although the ‘Hogs couldn’t get by the Texas Stars in the Western Conference Finals, the young club was the first to reach the Calder Cup semifinals in franchise history. And they became only the 19th of 136 AHL playoff teams to trail 3-0 in a best-of-seven series and reach Game 6.
Rockford has made six trips to the Calder Cup Playoffs and now have a 20-24 playoff record going into a shortened 2018 offseason.
There were several surprises this season. After a solid start, Rockford started chalking their share of losses. Trades saw a couple of notable players shipped elsewhere and the arrival of a couple of former crowd favorites.
Chris DiDomenico put on a Rockford sweater for the second time in his pro career. And while the scrappy forward’s latest stint began somewhat quiet, he exploded in the playoffs, leading the AHL in scoring through the first three rounds of the postseason. During that span, he logged seven goals and 11 assists in 13 games. That set the IceHogs’ AHL playoff scoring record, surpassing the previous mark of 14 points in 12 games by Martin St. Pierre in 2008. DiDomenico also ranked first in the AHL in goals, second in assists and second in both power-play points and power-play assists.
This season also presented a seesaw affair for goaltenders in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Injuries to Corey Crawford opened up the door for three Rockford call-ups as J.F. Berube, Jeff Glass, and Colin Delia saw action with the big club and Delia and Glass emerged as the IceHogs bright spot between the pipes.
Glass and Delia Jeff Glass combined to post a 2.12 GAA and .931 save percentage in 13 games. Delia notched the third-longest win streak – seven games – by an AHL rookie since 2006, trailing only Michal Neuvirth’s eight wins in 2010 and Pekka Rinne’s nine in 2006. Glass won his AHL playoff debut on May 24 and combined to make 106 saves on 111 shots over three appearances.
Rockford’s power play finished first in the AHL with an efficiency of 32.1 percent (18-for-56), which was 8.7 percent better than any other team in tournament. The feat proved momentous for the IceHogs, as their powerplay was below 15 percent during the regular season. That percentage improved with the arrival of DiDomenico, Cody Franson and Adam Clendening. The trio helped the club begin playoffs with at least one power-play goal in each of their first nine games and scored 17 of their first 32 goals (53.1 percent) while on the man-advantage.
Rockford scored a power-play goal in 10 of 13 playoff games.
The blueline core was a big part of the playoff push, too. Forty-eight of Rockford’s 122 points in the postseason were scored by defensemen, which represented more than 39 percent of the offense. IceHogs defensemen also accounted for 47 percent of team’s 51 power-play points. Clendening, Franson and Carl Dahlstrom finished the postseason as the top-three scoring defensemen in the AHL.
Rookie Victor Ejdsell, who came to the Blackhawks organization in the Ryan Hartman trade, scored seven goals in the playoffs including four game-winners. That shared the league lead and broke the IceHogs’ all-time record of three set by Jason Noterman in 2007. Ejdsell skated in six games for Chicago late in the season before coming back to Rockford for the AHL playoffs.
“A lot of positive things happened throughout the lineup,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “A lot of guys got a chance to play with the Blackhawks and get their feet wet and show that they can contribute there.”
Rockford squeaked into the playoffs seven weeks ago as a fourth seed. They then proceeded to sweep No. 1-seed Chicago followed by a 4-0 sweep of a Manitoba Moose team that dominated the Central Division throughout the season.
“They were great performances,” Colliton said. “Guys are understanding how they have to play to be counted on in big moments. It feels really good to watch the steps these guys have taken.”
Rockford opens its 2018-19 home campaign Saturday, Oct. 13. Their opponent will be announced when the AHL schedules are released. R.