The Rockford IceHogs will begin postseason play for the first time in five seasons this weekend. The AHL has a different idea of what “home ice” entails, so the boys will begin the opening round of the playoffs in Texas.
Rockford, who finished the season as the fourth-seed, will play Friday and Saturday night against the fifth-seeded Stars. The remainder of the five-game best of will take place at the BMO Harris Bank Center.
How do we feel about the opponent the Hogs have drawn? Well, they did everything they could to make this series happen.
The IceHogs were in contention for a higher seed all the way up to the final minutes of the regular season. Not only could they have leapfrogged Grand Rapids and San Antonio with a victory Saturday night, but they had an outside shot when the evening began of taking the top spot in the Western Conference.
With a division title on the line, Rockford iced a lineup made up of several recent ATO signings and sat Michael Leighton in favor of Mac Carruth in goal. Visiting Toronto (who nipped Chicago for the seventh seed) handed the IceHogs a 3-1 loss to close the regular season.
Rockford won seven of its last nine games in impressive fashion. After beating Charlotte 5-1 Wednesday night, the IceHogs beat the Chicago Wolves 4-3 Friday before dropping a 3-1 decision to Toronto Saturday. (Don’t look for recaps ‘cuz they ain’t gonna be there. I’m going to focus on the future this week.)
The two losses came with lineups that weren’t exactly heavy on regulars. The organization wanted to look at some players; as fans it was a little disappointing to see the low-hanging fruit of a top seed remain just out of reach. How does Texas matchup for the Hogs? Well…
The Stars, who happen to be the defending AHL champions, also finished the season strong. Winners of eight of its last ten, Texas won four in a row to end the regular season.
Veteran centers Travis Morin and Greg Rallo will spearhead the Stars offense. Morin was last year’s Calder Cup MVP and paced the team with 63 points this season. Rallo led Texas with 27 goals.
The thing with the Stars game is that they should play an up-tempo style that should be to Rockford’s advantage. The Hogs won all four meetings with Texas this season but three of the four were one-goal affairs.
Rockford faced Jack Campbell in net in all of the contests but may be trying to get pucks past Jussi Rynnas, who was the Stars best goalie this season (22-6-8, 2.53 goals against, .920 save percentage).
Comparing Notes On Rockford’s Year-End Awards
The IceHogs just finished a tremendous season and seem to be peaking at just the right time. Rockford set another attendance record in 2014-15, averaging 4834 fans per night.
Despite the loss Saturday in the regular-season finale, the mood was festive as the team announced its year-end awards. Allow me to weigh in:
Team MVP: Michael Leighton
Yeah, they got this one right. Hard not to. Rockford is going to go as far as the 33-year-old veteran can take them in the postseason.
Leighton’s final numbers in 42 games: 22-13-4, 2.26 goals against, .920 save percentage, five shutouts. He was awesome this season at stepping up against tough competition and was a driving force in solidifying the crease for the Hogs. Leighton was a total pro and a class act all season.
Team Rookie Of The Year: Ville Pokka
Hard to dispute as he was an All-AHL Rookie team selection. Pokka had 8 goals and 22 helpers in 68 games and a skater plus/minus rating of zero.
His numbers dipped quite a bit once partner T.J. Brennan left town, but it was a solid season for the 20-year-old in his first season of North American hockey.
Team Defenseman Of The Year: Kyle Cumiskey
This was going to be tough because Klas Dahlbeck and Brennan are now with different organizations. Cumiskey had two goals and 18 assists in 54 games with the Hogs but in no way was the team’s best defenseman.
With the depleted defensive corps, I look to the guy who took over top pairing minutes after the trade deadline and drug Viktor Svedberg around for the last few weeks. The guy who tied for the lead in plus/minus in the AHL with a plus-30. That guy would be Stephen Johns.
Sure, Johns missed some time with injuries in his first pro season. However, he really came into his own when Rockford needed him, got into 51 games and still produced more offense than Cumiskey.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t want Cumiskey with the Hogs for the playoffs. He just wasn’t the team’s best defenseman by a longshot.
Team Unsung Hero Award: Peter Regin
Unsung covers a lot of ground, so I guess the Hogs can justify this award. Regin was part of the team’s hottest offensive forward line down the stretch. He was an alternate captain for the bulk of the season and as far as veteran presence goes he also added much-needed skill to the club.
I could make a case for Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who really struck a chord with IceHogs fans this season and was a pretty productive player for a guy with limited puck skills. Several players have pointed to Labrie (who also wore an A quite a bit) as a key locker room leader.
Team Most Improved Player Award: Phillip Danault
The fore check from Hell was a top-six mainstay this season after struggling to find his game in his rookie season. Danault was fifth on the team with 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) and was tied behind Johns (with Garret Ross) with a plus-20 skater rating. He also had three shorthanded goals to pace the club.
Ryan Hartman was a player who made himself a difference maker in the second half of the season, but I was glad Danault received the recognition for rebounding in his sophomore campaign.
Team Heavy Hitter Award: Cody Bass
It says something that the photo used for Bass when his award was announced was one in which he was wearing no gloves and carrying no stick.
Bass, who really played some good, hard nosed hockey late in the season, led the team with 165 penalty minutes. He was seventh in the AHL with 17 fighting majors and that number was tops on Rockford (Labrie and Brandon Mashinter each had seven).
Team Man Of The Year: Zach Miskovic
You may or may not recall that I thought Miskovic had a decent shot at being named IceHogs captain before the season started. I’m not sure this was the season Miskovic envisioned when he signed an AHL contract with Rockford last summer.
He did wind up in 42 games despite being scratched often before the trade deadline when there were wall-to-wall defensemen on the roster. He took some spins as a forward and bailed the Hogs out of some injuries to guys like Svedberg and Johns with steady play from the blue line. All told, he had two goals and six helpers.
Miskovic also took a beat down from Kurt Gogol that he didn’t deserve after Gogol broke Alex Broadhurst’s arm back in November. He jumped into a line brawl in defense of a team mate and wound up tying up with his dance partner for well over a minute while the officials sorted out other fights.
He wore an A on his sweater on a regular basis as the regular season wound down and was a steadying force on defense when things got a bit thin in that department.
None of that probably factored into his award, earned through a lot of work in the Rockford community this year. I just thought it was important to note his on-ice contributions.
Yet Another Slice Of The BMO
This apparently irked me more than the folks around me, but I get this space every week so here goes.
A week ago Sunday, former IceHogs forward Kyle Hagel was awarded the AHL Man Of The Year Award. Hagel, who was with Rockford from 2009 to 2011, was the Hogs Man Of The Year in 2011. That season, he logged 235 penalty minutes and posted his career-high offensive numbers (5 goals, 8 assists).
Hagel was in town with his current club, the Charlotte Checkers, on Wednesday night. The IceHogs recognize the AHL/CCM Player Of The Week most nights. The AHL Man Of The Year was a former Hog and was in the building. Hell, he was on the Checkers bench in the third period of a 5-1 Rockford win.
With the game well in hand and a unique opportunity before them, several of us folks in the stands (I say several because I mentioned it to everyone around me) wondered if the team would give a shout out to a former player who has used his position as a pro hockey player to make a difference in his community.
Hagel has been his team’s Man Of The Year on four occasions behind a reading program he has implemented in the cities in which he’s played.
The last timeout on the ice came and went without so much as a mention of Hagel’s award. The game ended and off Hagel went to the locker room.
It probably didn’t mean much to many of the fans who were going home to digest all the dollar hot dogs consumed at the game. However, I think there were a lot of longtime Hogs fans in the house that would have given Hagel a hand for giving something back.
The IceHogs organization is good at classy gestures like this and they still get it right most times. On this occasion, though, I thought they were presented a chance to show some class. For whatever reason (oversight, perhaps?) they chose not to do so.
IceHogs nation steels itself for a run at the Calder Cup, however long it may last. Follow me @JonFromi on twitter to hear some updates from Texas this weekend.