By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Although they still have a long way to go before they’re crowned Calder Cup champions, the Rockford IceHogs return to BMO Harris Bank Center action tonight with a 2-0 series lead against the Manitoba Moose and a five-game unbeaten streak in the playoffs.
The trip back to Rockford comes after the IceHogs controlled the Moose on their home ice with a 4-2-win Friday and a commanding 4-1 tilt Saturday in the best-of-seven Central Division Finals.
The Moose struck first in Game 2 when Brendan Lemieux redirected a Nic Petan shot at 16:03 of the opening period. Rockford’s Tyler Sikura knotted the score just before the end of the frame and Chris DiDomenico buried the game-winner four minutes into the second.
Eleven minutes later, Carl Dahlstrom let a one-timer go that went top-shelf from the point to add to the Rockford lead. It was the defenseman’s first of the postseason and he’s now tied for third in team scoring with five points.
“They had a really good push against us, especially in the beginning,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We weathered the storm and got a big goal at the end of the period, which was probably a bit of a blow to them. Then we just got better as the game went on.”
The teams played scoreless hockey and traded penalties in the final frame, but Andreas Martinsen’s empty-net strike sealed the IceHogs victory and the 2-0 series bulge.
Collin Delia was in the Rockford goal Saturday and stopped 33 shots to remain unbeaten in the club’s quest for the league title. He leads all AHL netminders in the playoffs with a 1.52 GAA and ranks second with a save percentage of .949, a mark that came by way of a journey started in Indianapolis. From there, he landed in Rockford, then back in Indianapolis, then back in Rockford before his March 29 NHL debut with the Blackhawks.
Although it was far from easy, Delia developed a rhythm he says has come with an even-keel poise needed in high-level situations that typically only get more stressful as the playoffs continue.
“The adversity helped define that rhthym,” he said. “It’s something that you gradually achieve throughout the year–you build and build and build. I don’t think I had that presence at the beginning of the year. It’s something that has come with having the experience of a full season in Indy, being here and being in Chicago.”
And while Rockford somewhat backed into playoffs, the Central Division was largely up for grabs as the final stretch of the regular season approached. Manitoba relinquished its wide first-place margin, to Chicago. But Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Iowa and Rockford also knocked on the door. The Wild and Admirals failed to capitalize, and Rockford grabbed the No. 4 seed, a placing that means nothing to Colliton.
“We have great belief in this group,” he said. “Even at the beginning of the year, we felt we had a good team, great players. It was just a matter of learning how to win and learning how to win when you’re not at your best. I think we’ve done that. So, as we put a good run together in the second half, no one in the room is surprised that we’re still around making some noise here. We’ve expected to be doing what we’re doing.”
Tonight’s opening faceoff is at 7 p.m. Game 4 is Friday, May 11, in Rockford. If necessary, Game 5 will at the BMO Saturday at 6 p.m. Games 6 and 7 would be in Winnipeg. R.