Ice Hogs

High On The Hog: Gustafsson Injury, Empty Seats

The Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, have been pretty healthy so far this season. Simply the fact that I wrote the previous sentence foreshadows some unfortunate news down I-90 way. To be blunt, someone on the Rockford blueline is going to have to raise their game a notch. Who will that be? Well, I know who it won’t be, at least for a while.

Gustafsson Injured

Early in Rockford’s overtime loss to Iowa Friday night, defenseman Erik Gustafsson departed to the locker room. He did not return to the contest, nor did he play the following night in Chicago.

In what turned out to be Gustafsson’s final shift of the evening, he appeared to take some contact in the corner of the Hogs zone. He appeared to be favoring his arm.

Robin Press was recalled Saturday, indicating that Gustafsson might miss some time. How long? John Dietz of the Daily Herald tweeted the following Sunday afternoon:

That’s not good news; Gustafsson was a power play general, despite the team’s struggles in that department. He is also Rockford’s leading point-scorer among the defensemen (3 G, 8 A).

Ville Pokka stepped up with a goal Saturday night, despite the Hogs losing 4-3 to Chicago. With eight points on the season (2 G, 6 A), Pokka becomes the IceHogs primary offensive weapon on the back end. Darren Raddysh, who has gotten a lot of power play time, could also see an expanded role in the offense.

Pokka has been at his best when paired with a veteran at his side (think T.J. Brennan or Cameron Schilling). Now Pokka has to be the experienced half of a pairing with rookie Luc Snuggerud. That duo are likely candidates to step up for Rockford. December is going to be a big month for the two, Pokka in particular.

 

Transactions

Press isn’t the only skater brought up from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel last weekend. On Friday, forward Radovan Bondra was recalled by Rockford.

Bondra’s situation differs from Press in that he is likely to be rehabbing an injury suffered while playing for the Fuel. I would not expect Bondra to play for the Hogs at this point.

Press, on the other hand, gets a chance to show the Hawks organization something in whatever games he can work his way into in the next few weeks. Press played in just nine games for the IceHogs last year; this could turn out to be his longest audition yet at the AHL level.

 

In My Dreams, It’s Still The Same…Your Love Is Strong, It Still Remains

It’s hard not to notice some very small crowds at the BMO Harris Bank Center this season. That isn’t necessarily out of whack with early season trends for the Hogs. Traditionally, attendance starts picking up around this time of year.

The low numbers should not be dismissed out of hand, however. Rockford is drawing less fans to see this exiting young team; a quick look at the numbers backs this up.

Last season, the IceHogs drew an average of 4328 fans a game over their 38 game home schedule. This was the first season since the 2011-12 campaign that attendance was less than the previous season. In fact, last season saw a huge drop; down from a franchise-record 5014 in 2015-16.

It’s pretty easy to explain the decreased audience; Rockford was one of the AHL’s worst on the ice and fans predictably stayed away. The IceHogs have started 2017-18 with a 7-5 home record. That would suggest that more fans are coming out to check this team out, right?

Wrong. In fact, the numbers are down substantially.

Through the first twelve games, Rockford has averaged 3443 per game. That’s compared with the 3885 that watched the Hogs go 5-5-0-2 to begin the home schedule last fall.

At the current pace, the team would wind up drawing less than 4000 fans per contest since the 2009-10 season. It would also mark a two-season trend in dwindling attendance.

As is the case this season, Rockford also had home games sandwiched around Thanksgiving last year. They drew 2702 Thanksgiving Eve and 4521 on Black Friday. Wednesday, there were 2717 in attendance. Friday saw 4272 fans at the BMO.

Through the first two months of that record-setting 2015-16 campaign, the BMO averaged almost a thousand more fans per night that it has this season. Those numbers held up through the Thanksgiving Eve (3606)/Black Friday (5738) games Rockford also hosted that year.

The Hogs have a better product on the ice than a year ago; it is a bit surprising to see that fewer fans are turning out to see it. On the other hand, the emphasis on fighting is practically non-existent. Is the lack of fisticuffs keeping folks away? That would be too bad, as the Flying Piglets of Winnebago County have proven to be an entertaining group.

Could the promotion schedule be a factor? I’m very sure that in the past two years, a local television station had already bought out all the tickets for one game, guaranteeing a sellout for the Hogs. That hasn’t occurred yet on this year’s schedule.

Hogs fans like getting free stuff; most of the big giveaways haven’t happened yet. On the other hand, I expected to be in a pretty long line at the season ticket-holder entrance for the free hats that were given away on Military Appreciation Night. Instead, it was a tomb; no fans bickering as to whom could claim their premium first or arguing with the ushers about the unfairness of it all. Just walked right in.

As I mentioned, this is about the time of year when the numbers pick up in Rockford. The team has scheduled a Marion Hossa night on Friday that is going to boast…well, Marion Hossa in some capacity.  The team is also giving away backpacks (that won’t pass the arena’s security policy by the look of them) and youth jerseys and more hats and posters and other such trinkets that take up space in my son’s closet.

Attendance is down. On the other hand…no. There is no other hand. Attendance is down. Get out of your easy chair and go check out the IceHogs in the next few weeks. I’ll revisit this issue in a month or so to see if this young, exciting bunch starts packing the fans into the BMO.

 

Recaps

The week started with promise; a home win over Iowa Wednesday. The Hogs dropped the rematch with the Wild Friday as well as a road game with the Chicago Wolves the next evening. Iowa’s win over Chicago Sunday knocked Rockford (11-8-1) into third place in the AHL’s Central Division.

Wednesday, November 22-Rockford 3, Iowa 1

The Hogs were propelled by a natural hat trick by Matthew Highmore, who scored in each period to lead Rockford to its third-straight victory.

The IceHogs dominated possession for the bulk of the contest, limiting Iowa to just 13 shots in the first 40 minutes of action. Rockford struggled on the power play, as has been the case of late, but denied all seven Wild power plays. Highmore took care of the goal scoring.

The rookie forward got his big night started with a redirect of Luc Snuggerud’s shot from the point 4:27 into the game. Midway through the second period, Highmore was once again around the net to take advantage of a loose puck.

The play started at the top of the left circle, where Anthony Louis sent a shot toward the Wild net. The puck glanced off an Iowa defender and settled near the goal line. Highmore swept the biscuit into the basket for a 2-0 Rockford advantage at the 11:21 mark.

Late in the final frame, Alexandre Fortin got the puck into neutral ice and across the red line. Highmore took control and turned on the jets. Streaking toward and then across the Iowa cage, Highmore deked Wild goalie Niklas Svedberg before sending a forehand shot to the stick side. Rubber hooked up with twine; all was good in the world. At 15:28 of the third, Rockford led 3-0.

Iowa brought Svedberg to the bench shortly after and skated most of the remaining four minutes with an open net. J.F. Berube’s shutout bid was foiled when Gerald Mayhew scored with 2:49 to play. However, the IceHogs would not give up another goal.

As you would expect, Highmore was voted the game’s first star. Berube (23 saves) and Luke Johnson (two assists and a game attempt at a scrap with 6’4″ Carson Soucy) rounded out the three stars.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Tomas Jurco-David Kampf-Vinnie Hinostroza

Anthony Louis-Laurent Dauphin (A)-Andreas Martinsen

Alexandre Fortin-Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson (A)

Graham Knott-Tyler Sikura-William Pelletier

Luc Snuggerud-Ville Pokka (A)

Carl Dahlstrom-Darren Raddysh

Viktor Svedberg-Robin Norell

Jean-Francois Berube

Scratches-Erik Gustafsson, Matheson Iacopelli

Power Play (0-5)

Kampf-Hinostroza-Jurco-Martinsen-Raddysh

Louis-Highmore-Johnson-Dauphin-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Iowa was 0-7)

Martinsen-Dauphin-Svedberg-Norell

Knott-Sikura-Snuggerud-Pokka

Highmore-Johnson-Raddysh-Dahlstrom

 

Friday, November 24-Iowa 2, Rockford 1 (OT)

For the first time this season, the IceHogs dropped an overtime decision, ending their three-game win streak.

Iowa’s regulation tally came late in the opening period, seconds after Rockford had killed off a Viktor Svedberg hooking penalty. Joel Ericksson Ek came around the Hogs net and sent a pass out for Ryan Murphy to one-time toward Rockford goalie Jeff Glass. The puck slid under Glass’s pads for a 1-0 Wild lead at 19:47 of the first period.

The IceHogs tied the score at 6:59 mark of the middle frame after Robin Norell sent a clearing attempt to the end boards of the Iowa zone. Icing was waved off after Vinnie Hinostroza won a race to the puck; the speedy forward put the moves on Murphy, gaining possession as well as the space needed to send a pass out to Luc Snuggerud at the top of the left circle.

Snuggerud’s one-timer made a beeline for the far side of the Iowa net. It zipped past past Wild goalie Steve Michalek and into twine town to make it a 1-1 contest.

Rockford appeared to take the lead a few minutes later on a power play goal by Tomas Jurco. However, the goal was waved off after it was ruled that Jurco batted the puck in with his hand. The Hogs string of futility when up a man continued and the game remained knotted at a goal apiece.

Neither team could get a puck past the goalies in regulation. The game-winner came 3:44 into Gus Macker Time when Ericksson Ek took a pass from Landon Ferraro in the slot. Matthew Highmore appeared to lose and edge while attempting to defend Ericksson Ek, who shot over the prone Hogs forward as well as the glove of Glass.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Tomas Jurco-David Kampf-Vinnie Hinostroza

Anthony Louis-Laurent Dauphin (A)-Andreas Martinsen

Alexandre Fortin-Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson (A)

Graham Knott-Tyler Sikura-William Pelletier

Erik Gustafsson-Darren Raddysh

Luc Snuggerud-Ville Pokka (A)

Viktor Svedberg-Robin Norell

Jeff Glass

Scratches-Matheson Iacopelli, Carl Dahlstrom

Power Play (0-2)

Kampf-Hinostroza-Jurco-Martinsen-Raddysh

Louis-Highmore-Johnson-Dauphin-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Iowa was 0-2)

Martinsen-Dauphin-Svedberg-Norell

Knott-Sikura-Snuggerud-Pokka

Highmore-Johnson-Raddysh-Gustafsson

 

Saturday, November 25-Chicago 4, Rockford 3

In a real back-and-forth affair, the Wolves got a pair of goals in the early minutes of the third period to hand Rockford its second straight loss.

The Wolves got a goal at the eight-minute mark after faceoff at the left dot in the Hogs zone. Wade Megan won the draw; Teemu Pulkkinen found Petteri Lindbohm out at the left point and the shot got by J.F. Berube and into the net.

Minutes later, Carl Dahlstom got control of the puck along the boards and sent it to Tomas Jurco at the point. Jurco sent a shot toward the net that may have caught a piece of Megan’s stick. The tumbling biscuit fluttered past Wolves goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to tie the game 1-1 at the 10:35 mark.

Chicago went up 2-1 on a Jason Garrison goal 5:30 into the middle frame, but back came the Hogs, and on the power play to boot. On their second chance of the evening, Ville Pokka took a backhanded pass from Laurent Dauphin let fly from the blueline. The offering was stopped by the back of the Wolves net for Rockford’s first goal when up a man since November 9. The slump-buster came at 9:52 of the second; the teams skated into the second intermission with two goals apiece.

The contest was decided in the a wild three-minute stretch of the final frame. The Hogs took their first lead of the evening on a Matheson Iacopelli snipe from the top of the left circle. The play took a bit to develop, as Iacopelli had to loop around in neutral ice until Rockford was onside. Once that happened, the rookie brought the cookie into the offensive zone and fired past Kaskisuo for a 3-2 lead at the 3:59 mark.

The IceHogs had little time to savor their advantage; 46 seconds, to be exact. Chicago won a defensive draw, quickly came up the ice and tied the game on a Stefan Matteau shot that clanged off the right post and into the goal.

Moments later, veteran Brett Sterling found the top shelf from the left dot, beating Berube and making it 4-3 Wolves 6:20 into the third. Rockford was unable to come up with an answer in the remainder of the game despite some power play time and vacating their net in the closing minutes.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Tomas Jurco-David Kampf-Vinnie Hinostroza (A)

Anthony Louis-Laurent Dauphin-Andreas Martinsen (A)

Alexandre Fortin-Matthew Highmore-Luke Johnson

Matheson Iacopelli-Graham Knott-William Pelletier

Luc Snuggerud-Ville Pokka

Viktor Svedberg (A)-Robin Norell

Carl Dahlstrom-Darren Raddysh

Jean-Francois Berube

Scratches-Erik Gustafsson, Tyler Sikura

Power Play (1-6)

Kampf-Hinostroza-Jurco-Martinsen-Raddysh

Louis-Highmore-Johnson-Dauphin-Pokka

Penalty Kill (Wolves were 0-2)

Martinsen-Dauphin-Svedberg-Norell

Knott-Hinostroza-Snuggerud-Pokka

Highmore-Johnson-Raddysh-Dahlstrom

Previews Of Coming Attractions

The best team in the AHL’s Central Division has been the Manitoba Moose. The 14-5-1-1 Moose are 8-3 against Central Division opponents and are currently riding a six-game win steak. They’re also 9-4 on the road this season, so they’re doing that hockey but good.

The Manitoba roster boasts former IceHogs Cameron Schilling (2 G, 13 A) and Kiril Gotovets on the defensive side. The Moose are seventh in the league in scoring and have been strong in goal with Michael Hutchinson and Eric Comrie in net.

Manitoba has ten players with double-digit points; they’re led by Jack Roslovic (11 G, 11 A) and Mike Sgarbossa (8 G, 12 A). This juggernaut is stopping in Rockford Tuesday night. Manitoba is sure to be a stiff test for the Hogs.

The Wolves pay a visit to the BMO Friday night. Chicago is still in the division basement, but both games between the Wolves and Rockford have been tight affairs. Plus, Illinois Lottery Cup points are at stake, kids!

Saturday, we get our first glimpse of the Texas Stars, who are 11-8-1 after sweeping a weekend set in Cleveland. Former Hawks prospect Mark McNeill skates for the Stars, though infrequently. He has just two points (1 G, 1 A) in six appearances with Texas this season.

The Stars are paced by veteran AHL forward Travis Morin, who has three goals and 17 helpers this season. NHL vet Brian Flynn also provides scoring and leadership.

The Hogs defeated Texas both times the Stars visited Rockford last season. Like the Wolves, Texas is an opponent with lots of experienced players.

Follow my twitter account @JonFromi for Rockford game updates all season long, plus my thoughts on the IceHogs when I have time to chime in.

 

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