Ice Hogs

High On The Hog: Fights And Attendance Down…Coincidence?

The Rockford IceHogs, AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, have an attendance problem. This, despite having a young, exciting group of prospects that sit in second place in the league’s Central Division through 33 games.

Through this point in the calendar a year ago, Rockford was averaging 3905 fans a night for 17 home games. In 20 home dates this season, the Hogs are averaging 3515. For the second straight season, the franchise is facing a big drop in attendance.

Why are fewer people congregating at the BMO Harris Bank Center to cheer on the ‘Bago County Flying Piglets? Apparently because they’re not the ‘Bago County Fighting Piglets.

Some of you might find that statement ridiculous. Others may be nodding pensively. How would the absence of fisticuffs be keeping hockey fans from checking out the quality product showcased in the Forest City? Something else has to be the culprit.

The IceHogs are a much better team this season, both in terms of quality of play and win-loss record. They play a fast-paced style for 60 minutes a night. What’s not to like?

Still, let’s speculate. What could be vastly different about this season that the attendance has dropped the way it has?

Is it the power play? Its still abysmal, though Rockford managed a pair of goals on the man advantage this week. Their success rate of 13.3 percent in the last three games actually raised the Hogs overall total for the season. Regardless, that doesn’t seem to be a factor in attendance.

Could it be bad public relations? This is a young, talented and pretty likable team. No scandalous happenings to the best of my knowledge.

How about turnover in the broadcast booth? Rockford is on its third play-by-play man in the last three months. Bob Mills resigned back in October; Mike Peck handled the mic on an interim basis before the club hired Joe Zakzewski. I’ve enjoyed listening to Joey Z and feel like his open style on social media is a big plus to drawing in fans.

Underwhelming giveaway promotions? 4,296 fans showed up to nab free blankets Friday night, down about 1,200 for a similar promotion last December. Seems like the swag is of similar quality as other years.

Sunspots? I guess that’s for the scientists to decide.

Lack of fighting? Hmmmm…could be…

I would guess that its not just the lack of fighting, but the substantial drop in this category over the past three months of action. Here’s how that three-month total has looked over the past few seasons:

2013-14: 15 FM

2014-15: 30 FM

2015-16: 20 FM

2016-17: 17 FM

2017-18: 5 FM

Through 33 games this season, Rockford has been assessed five fighting majors.

Five.

Not fifteen, five. You can literally count them on one hand.

Last year, the IceHogs set a franchise-low in the category with just 39 fighting majors assessed. Keep in mind, that figure was still good for eighth-highest in the AHL. Rockford is last in the league in fights, which is unprecedented.

It’s simple to explain this prodigious drop in glove dropping. Rockford doesn’t have anyone remotely counting as a fighter on its roster (though Matt Tomkins was in a goalie fight last week before being promoted from Indy). Its probably fortunate that more Hogs aren’t getting into scraps…because they’re not good at it.

The lone December fracas saw Laurent Dauphin square off with Duncan Siemens of the Rampage on the 15th. The Hogs center has been wearing a full face shield ever since; a bit ironic as his bout was the least one-sided of any Rockford has been a part of this season…by far.

If Rockford players are going to get into fights and continue to take damage that could lead to missed time, I’d rather they keep their gloves on. The team does not appear to be bringing in someone with pugilistic tendencies anytime soon, so I would expect more of the status quo.

As I have said repeatedly here, the lack of fighting has not diminished my enjoyment of the games or kept me from showing up. I suspect that I am in the minority when it comes to this issue, though.

Maybe that’s assuming too much. However, it wouldn’t shock me if that drop of 400 fans a night consists in some part of folks who want blood every night and don’t feel its worth the drive downtown if they aren’t going to see it.

Based on the advertising I’ve seen this fall, the emphasis on fighting is as non-existent as it is on the ice. Again, that doesn’t bother me a bit.

I could understand a drop in attendance last season. The team was terrible and going nowhere in an awful hurry. This season, I can’t figure it out. The team has been fun to watch even when they don’t win, and they are in great position in terms of the standings right now.

The Rockford fan base has always supported this team going back to the UHL days, good or bad. Why not now? Hopefully the new year brings in some bigger gates as the season rolls on.

Piglets In Net

Rockford completed a three-games-in-three-nights stretch Saturday, showcasing the style of play that we’ve come to expect from this group. The difference lay in the crease, where the Hogs have two very green goalies to choose from for the foreseeable future.

Due to injuries in Chicago (Corey Crawford) and Rockford (J.F. Berube), both of the organization’s veteran net minders are up with the Blackhawks. This leaves the less than seasoned tandem of Colin Delia and Matt Tomkins to backstop the IceHogs.

Delia, signed to an entry deal by the Blackhawks this summer, made his second and third AHL starts against Iowa this week, having just ten ECHL games under his belt with the Indy Fuel. Tomkins, who made his AHL debut Saturday night, had just eight games played with the Fuel. An AHL contract signing by Rockford, the former Chicago draft pick is now in his first stint in Rockford.

Neither rookie is making anyone forget Berube or Jeff Glass, who were adept at keeping some of Rockford’s more aggressive mistakes from showing up on the scoreboard. Delia seemed to spend quite a bit of time off his skates; there may have been reason that he sat in favor of Glass until their was no other recourse but to give him a start this week.

Tomkins showed some smart rebound control but was still torched for six goals in his start against the Wolves. He let a puck drop and roll into his net on Chicago’s first power play goal Saturday, then failed to cover a loose puck in front of him that resulted in a shorthanded tally for the Wolves.

With Berube not available for possibly a couple more weeks, Rockford will have to stay afloat with Delia and Tomkins for the immediate future. The IceHogs have four games this week against division foes. Limiting shots on goal and staying out of the penalty box are going to be keys in each of those contests.

I think Rockford can tread water with the current goalie situation for another week or so. Any further and they may have to find an experienced AHL veteran and sign him to a PTO to sure things up.

 

Hot Line

The grouping of Alexandre Fortin, Tyler Sikura and Andreas Martinsen has been a very effective line for Rockford. This week, that line accounted for four goals.

Sikura, in particular, was excellent. He found the net in all three games and had four points this past week. Fortin put up a goal and two helpers while Martinsen chipped in with an assist and freed up some pucks with his physical presence.

With the Hogs power play as bad as it is, Sikura and his knack for getting to the front of the net sure wouldn’t do any harm. He continues to be a quality signing for Rockford. Sikura has six goals and four assists on the season and carries the second highest skater rating on the club (plus-11).

Rookie Matthew Highmore continues to lead the IceHogs in goals; his hat trick Thursday night puts him at 14 for the season. His 22 points is tied with Tomas Jurco (10 G, 12 A) for the team lead among the active roster.

Defenseman Erik Gustafsson made his return from an upper body injury this week. He had an assist in both Thursday and Friday’s games with Iowa. Luke Johnson broke a six-game pointless streak with a goal and two helpers this week.

 

Recaps

Thursday, December 27-Rockford 6, Iowa 3

Rockford picked up a third straight win, paced by a Matthew Highmore hat trick, some solid defensive play and a bit of puck luck.

The IceHogs got on the board 3:02 into the contest. The opening goal was set up by Andreas Martinsen, who separated a Wild skater from the puck in the corner of the Iowa zone. Tyler Sikura grabbed the turnover, skated toward the right post and hit Alexandre Fortin in the slot for the lamp-lighter.

That 1-0 lead was short-lived, as the Wild returned fire just 12 seconds later. Cal O’Reilly got a pass through Anthony Louis and Erik Gustafsson to Zach Parise. The rehabbing Parise easily found Luke Kunin in the high slot. Kunin’s shot got over the blocker of Hogs goalie Colin Delia to tie the score at a goal apiece.

Rockford took a 2-1 advantage thanks to some hard work by Luke Johnson and Matthew Highmore. Johnson fought for and won a puck battle along the left half boards of the Wild zone. Highmore took a pass from Johnson and wove his way to the left post. The initial shot was stopped by the pad of Steve Michalek. Highmore, however, collected the rebound and flung it home at the 8:47 mark.

Iowa drew even again on a Justin Kloos power play goal 11:30 into the first, then went up 3-2 a couple of minutes later when Johnson whiffed on a pass attempt in the neutral zone. AHL veteran Pat Cannone maneuvered around Viktor Svedberg to the right dot, where he beat Delia’s glove with a wrister at the 14:10 mark. The Wild held that advantage into the first intermission.

The Hogs outshot Iowa 11-3 in the second period. Delia wasn’t real busy in that time, but did make a couple of big stops. It was soon after a point-blank stop on a Kunin attempt from the slot that Rockford evened the score.

Fortin got to a loose puck in the neutral zone and hit Tyler Sikura just short of the red line. Sikura skated hard into Wild territory and fired from the top of the left circle. The shot befuddled Michalek and settled into the basket at 16:59 of the period.

A Nick Seeler holding infraction gave Rockford a man advantage late in the middle frame. For the first time in several games, the IceHogs took advantage. Erik Gustafsson, returning to the lineup for the first time since November 25, hit Tomas Jurco at the top of the left circle. Jurco’s shot ricocheted off of the shin pads of Highmore and into the cage at the 19:29 mark. The Hogs led 4-3 after 40 minutes.

A clearing attempt by Svedberg early in the third period resulted in some insurance for the IceHogs. William Pelletier chased down the puck ahead of his Iowa counterparts to negate icing, then took advantage of a odd bounce off of the end boards to snipe one past Michalek’s stick side. That made the score 5-3 just 2:08 into the third.

Twice in the final frame, Iowa skaters were taken down on the way to breakaway attempts. Both Mario Lucia and Sam Anas were awarded penalty shots and had Delia beaten with an open net in front of them. Lucia’s backhand attempt sailed wide of the cage. Anas had his offering denied by the left post.

The pressure was on for most of the last three minutes, as Iowa pulled Michalek and camped out in the Rockford zone. Ville Pokka was finally able to clear the defensive zone with 48 seconds remaining. Pelletier slid the puck into the Wild zone and Highmore helpfully guided it into the empty net with 43 seconds left.

Delia stopped 15 of the 18 shots he faced to pick up his first AHL victory. Highmore and Sikura were awarded the game’s first and second stars, respectively.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Alexandre Fortin-Tyler Sikura-Andreas Martinsen

Anthony Louis-Tanner Kero-Tomas Jurco

Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson (A)-William Pelletier

Graham Knott-Laurent Dauphin (A)-Matheson Iacopelli

Robin Norell-Ville Pokka (A)

Erik Gustafsson-Darren Raddysh

Carl Dahlstrom-Viktor Svedberg

Colin Delia

Scratches-Luc Snuggerud, Robin Press, Brandon Anselmini, Jordin Tootoo, J.F. Berube

Power Play (1-3)

Highmore-Kero-Jurco-Louis-Gustafsson

Fortin-Johnson-Raddysh-Dahlstrom-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Iowa was 1-4)

Highmore-Kero-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

Johnson-Jurco-Gustafsson-Norell

Sikura-Martinsen-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

 

Friday, December 29-Iowa 5, Rockford 3

Some third-period fireworks created a bit of excitement, but the Hogs couldn’t complete a three-goal comeback despite out shooting the Wild 48-30.

Rockford got on the board quickly. Iowa goalie Steve Michalek fought off a Laurent Dauphin put-back attempt after Erik Gustafsson put a shot on net. The puck made its way out to the waiting stick of Matheson Iacopelli. With a wide-open net to aim for, Iacopelli drove home his sixth of the season at 2:51 of the first period.

Iowa scored the next four goals of the contest, starting late in the first when Mario Lucia stuck in a rebound past Hogs goalie Colin Delia to tie the game on the power play. Iowa’s man advantage struck again when Luke Kunin one-timed a Ryan Murphy pass into Delia’s net 1:34 into the second.

At the 8:31 mark, Delia was left to defend a three-on-one rush that ended with an easy tap-in for Lucia. A little over two minutes later, a turnover by Rockford’s Darren Raddysh wound up in the back of the Hogs cage, courtesy of Landon Ferraro.

Down 4-1, it appeared that 4,296 folks who braved the elements to catch the action at the BMO would be able to get a head start home. That’s certainly how it looked for the first ten minutes of the final frame. However, in a span of 25 seconds, the IceHogs suddenly made it a hockey game.

It started off an offensive zone draw midway through the period. Tanner Kero flipped a backhand past Michalek, set up by Anthony Louis, for his first goal this season with Rockford at 10:41. On the subsequent shift, Tyler Sikura deftly redirected a Ville Pokka blast from the point. The puck eluded the Iowa net-minder and the Hogs had cut the lead to 4-3 at 11:06.

Rockford gained a power play with 2:25 remaining for a last shot at the equalizer. Once they established control in the Wild zone, Hogs coach Jeremy Colliton brought Delia to the bench for the extra skater. Soon after, Pokka had his shot attempt blocked by Kyle Rau. The two skaters raced to the loose puck. Rau got enough stick on it to get it into the empty net to close out the scoring at 18:58.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Alexandre Fortin-Tyler Sikura-Andreas Martinsen

Anthony Louis-Tanner Kero-Tomas Jurco

Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson (A)-William Pelletier

Graham Knott-Laurent Dauphin (A)-Matheson Iacopelli

Robin Norell-Ville Pokka (A)

Erik Gustafsson-Darren Raddysh

Carl Dahlstrom-Viktor Svedberg

Colin Delia

Scratches-Luc Snuggerud, Robin Press, Brandon Anselmini, Jordin Tootoo, J.F. Berube

Power Play (0-6)

Highmore-Kero-Jurco-Louis-Gustafsson

Fortin-Johnson-Raddysh-Dahlstrom-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Iowa was 2-7)

Highmore-Kero-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

Johnson-Jurco-Gustafsson-Norell

Sikura-Martinsen-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

 

Saturday, December 30-Chicago 6, Rockford 2 

The Wolves took a 1-0 lead at the 7:29 mark. Brandon Pirri’s power play tally came right off of a Wade Megan faceoff win. Pirri sent a screamer to goal from the high slot that rookie Matt Tomkins appeared to absorb. However, the puck got away from the Hogs goalie, struck his left leg, and rolled across the goal line to give Chicago an advantage they would hold into the first intermission.

Rockford had an early power play opportunity in the sandwich stanza. However, it was the Wolves who wound up taking advantage. Mackenzie Meachern was stopped by Tomkins, who failed to get his glove over the puck in front of him to gain a stoppage. Before he could make a second attempt at covering, Anthony Louis tried to clear the puck into the corner. The attempt banked off the skate of T.J. Tynan and slid past Tomkins for a 2-0 Chicago lead at the 3:24 mark.

Back came the IceHogs. Capitalizing on a sloppy line change by the Wolves, Tyler Sikua scooped up a loose puck between the benches and struck out for the Chicago zone with Alexandre Fortin on his left side. Wolves goalie Kazimir Kaskisuo was forced to hold his ground; Sikura zipped his shot to the far side to cut the lead to 2-1 4:25 into the second.

The Wolves got another power play goal midway through the period when Tomas Hyka was left open at the doorstep. However, late in the period, Rockford responded with a power play strike of its own.

Luke Johnson started and finished the play, gaining possesion in the neutral zone and hitting Darren Raddysh crossing the Wolves blueline along the right side. Johnson made a beeline for the slot, completing the give-and-go at 18:26 to get Rockford back to within a goal entering the final period.

Unfortunately, things got kind of ugly in the final 20 minutes of the contest. Chris Casto and Hyka scored within 71 seconds of each other in the early part of the third to go up 5-2. Rockford continued to skate hard, but the game was effectively over at that point. Wade Megan closed out the scoring for Chicago late in the game on a 3-on-2 rush.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson (A)-William Pelletier

Alexandre Fortin-Tyler Sikura-Andreas Martinsen

Anthony Louis-Tanner Kero-Tomas Jurco

Graham Knott-Laurent Dauphin (A)-Matheson Iacopelli

Carl Dahlstrom-Viktor Svedberg

Robin Norell-Ville Pokka (A)

Erik Gustafsson-Darren Raddysh

Matt Tomkins

Scratches-Luc Snuggerud, Robin Press, Brandon Anselmini, Jordin Tootoo, J.F. Berube

Power Play (1-5)

Highmore-Kero-Jurco-Louis-Gustafsson

Fortin-Johnson-Raddysh-Dahlstrom-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Wolves were 2-5)

Highmore-Kero-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

Johnson-Jurco-Gustafsson-Norell

Sikura-Martinsen-Dahlstrom-Svedberg

 

A Little Four-Play: Previewing This Week

Rockford hits 2018 running, with four games this week. It gets started Tuesday when Cleveland comes to the BMO. Friday, the Hogs visit Grand Rapids, who has yet to defeat Rockford in six tries this season. Rockford hosts Cleveland again Saturday night, then takes on Milwaukee at the BMO Sunday afternoon.

Currently, the Monsters are a good team to be facing twice in a five-day span. Cleveland is scuffling right now, having won just twice in its last ten games. They’ve lost four straight going into Tuesday’s game.

The Monsters are limping along offensively, scoring just 2.24 goals per contest (that’s last in the AHL). Their power play is keeping Rockford’s unit out of last place in efficiency, though not by much.

With just two road wins this season, Cleveland is a optimal club to come to your building while you’re nursing a pair of young goalies. Center Carter Campner leads the club in goals and scoring (7 G, 13 A); rookies Mike Koules (7 G, 6 A) and Sam Vignault (6 G, 6 A) are the only other current Monsters with double digit points.

Cleveland also is using a rookie duo in net.  Matiss Kivlenicks (3.38 GAA, .874 save percentage) and Ivan Kulbakov (4.17 GAA, .869 save percentage) have been the Monsters tandem for the past month.

The IceHogs are 12-1-1 at the BMO against the Monsters over the last five seasons. This Cleveland team is ripe for the picking right now. Rockford needs to take advantage and get all four points.

Rockford hasn’t seen the Admirals since November 11, when they won 5-2 in Milwaukee. The Ads hold a 3-2 edge in head-to-head match ups this season, including both games played at the BMO Harris Bank Center.

Leading the way offensively for the Ads is Bobby Butler (13 G, 12 A). Emil Petterssen (8 G, 16 A) has two goals and four apples against the Hogs this season. Anders Lindback has been very good for Milwaukee this season and will likely be the man in the cage Sunday.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for updates and thoughts on the IceHogs all season long.

 

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