By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Although there was some intense play on the part of the Rockford IceHogs to get them to .500 last weekend, things need to tighten up defensively if they intend to build on last year’s deep playoff run.
“It’s nice to see that we were able to close a couple games out,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I liked our pace and it showed that we have some potential in the group.”
But, like last year, it’s a young group with several players who are making the transition to the pro game, a move that involves more speed and expectations to produce. And making those transitions takes time and by way of learning from mistakes. Last weekend, Rockford’s mistakes were turnovers and odd-man rushes that left goaltenders out to dry. The ‘Hogs rebounded, however, skating away with a 5-3 win over Texas Saturday and a 5-2 victory against Hershey the next day.
“We’ve got to be much tighter defensively,” Colliton said. “I think goaltending masked some of our inefficiencies. We know it’s not going to be perfect and that we have work to do.”
Meanwhile, happy hockey players are productive ones, and Rockford will take that momentum to prepare for this week’s trip to Tucson.
Rockford continued its score-first trend this week and has now scored the first goal in each of its first four games. The feat put them alongside the San Jose Barracuda as the AHL’s only two teams to do so through four contests. There are also goals coming from an array of players, 11 IceHogs to be exact. The group has combined for 13 goals so far. Matthew Highmore and Tyler Sikura both have two markers for Rockford. Sikura and brother Dylan have factored into all three of the IceHogs’ power-play goals this year. The brothers who last played together in high school share the team lead in power-play points; Dylan’s collected three power-play assists while both of Tyler’s goals came on the power play. Tyler also has a power-play assist.
Five-on-five play, however, is what Colliton says his club needs to sharpen to avoid playing catch-up to salvage a contest.
Trailing 3-2 going into the third period Saturday, the IceHogs erupted for three unanswered goals in the final frame. Matheson Iacopelli jump-started the surge at the 11:06 mark capping some nifty passes from Graham Knott and Blake Hillman. Sikura lifted the ‘Hogs to the lead just under three minutes later, firing a shot on the rush past Texas goaltender Colton Point. Darren Raddysh iced the game on an empty-netter with 53 seconds remaining.
Sunday night was bit more on pace with what Colliton expects, but the game still had its moments. Rockford grabbed the early 1-0 lead, but Hershey found the equalizer five minutes later. The clubs then traded goals again before the IceHogs iced the contest.
“We are going to keep working at itfor as long as it takes,” Colliton said. “We have some good players who’ve made some good plays. But we can’t be satisfied. We wouldn’t be doing this group any good by being complacent because we won a couple games.”
Colliton added that part of his dissatisfaction comes from within. Last year’s team spent its share in valleys it didn’t appear they’d leave. Special teams were awful at times and a couple of losing streaks hinted at a mediocre showing for the young coach’s first season. As the year progressed, Rockford got some reinforcements from Chicago and more guys bought into Colliton’s approach to not only winning games but a system worthy of a Calder Cup Championship.
“I just have high expectations for the team, so I am not bubbling with joy or satisfaction,” he said. “But the good sign is that for two games in a row the game was on the line and we found a way to get it done.”
The IceHogs successfully killed off each of the five-opposing power-play opportunities last weekend. Rockford has now allowed just one power-play goal through 12 times being shorthanded, good for the league’s fourth-best PK efficiency of 91.7 percent.
Raddysh, Tuulola Positive
Darren Raddysh posted a season-high +2 rating in Sunday’s win. Raddysh joins Joni Tuulola as Rockford’s only two players to skate to an even-or-better plus/minus rating in each of the first four games this season. Raddysh currently leads the team with a +3 rating entering the week.
Rockford returns to the BMO Harris Bank Center Wednesday, Oct. 24, against the San Antonio Rampage. R.