The Rockford IceHogs are a single point away from earning a spot in the 2017-18 Calder Cup Playoffs. With the Blackhawks season over, there will be a lot of options for Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton this week.
Following the conclusion of the NHL season, the organization sent six players to Rockford to fortify the ‘Bago County Flying Piglets. Is this flood of talent a boon or bane to the IceHogs?
On the surface, this is a great problem for Colliton and the Hogs to have. What we have is a team that has put it together at an opportune time picking up some high-caliber talent. Lake Erie (now Cleveland) parlayed that combination into a Calder Cup just two years ago. Surely Colliton is going to find it hard to keep arrivals John Hayden, Andreas Martinsen, David Kampf and Victor Ejdsell off the forward lines.
On the other hand, why mess with what’s working? The current group has played very well in the past few weeks. Shouldn’t that be taken into consideration?
It would be easy to suggest that Colliton sit his AHL contracts in favor of a more high-end lineup. Of course, that would mean sitting your second leading goal-scorer and some other key personnel.
I can’t see the IceHogs sitting Tyler Sikura for anyone at this point. Having earned an NHL-deal for next season, Sikura added three more goals this weekend to push his season total to 22. Over his last ten games, Sikura the Elder has six goals and six helpers.
William Pelletier is another AHL contract that would be hard to see in the press box. His speed alone has been a huge plus for the IceHogs, who can count on the former Division-III standout to chase down pucks and negate icing. Oh…he also has 28 points (13 G, 15 A) on the season.
Hayden, Martinsen and Kampf have all spent a good portion of the season in the AHL. It’s difficult not to see them making Rockford a much tougher team to face, chemistry be damned. With three games remaining on the IceHogs regular season schedule, Colliton is going to have some interesting choices to make in the final week of the season, and possibly beyond.
So…who shines a seat? Here’s some speculatin’…
- First off, I would think the depth at forward would keep D Robin Norell off a forward line, regardless of how much Colliton and/or the organization likes him skating on a wing.
- If a playoff spot were to be locked up early this week, maybe we see Kyle Maksimovich or recently-signed Mathias From out there in the final weekend of action. Otherwise, they’ll just be along for the ride.
- Graham Knott, who has been a fourth-line center for the bulk of the campaign, is probably the first regular who loses his spot.
- Tanner Kero was injured Wednesday night in San Antonio; no word so far as I know regarding a return.
- Henrik Samuelsson, who earned a full-time AHL contract from the Hogs with some strong play during the stretch run, is likely to be another candidate to sit.
Colliton will also have to decide which of three goalies (Collin Delia, J.F. Berube or Jeff Glass) anchors this team from here on out. Delia has had the hot hand, going 7-0-2 in his last nine starts, including both of Rockford’s wins this week. In that nine-game span, he’s posted a 1.84 GAA and a .935 save percentage.
Of course, Berube has taken a team to the AHL championship back in 2014-15 with Manchester and has good AHL numbers this season (2.37 GAA, .920 save percentage) despite being 7-8 for the Hogs. Glass has had some effective stints in Rockford this season as well, with very similar season numbers to Delia.
If Rockford can collect a single point in any of its last three games, or if Milwaukee fails to win any of its last three, then the IceHogs are playoff bound. Depending on how the final week plays out, it is possible that Rockford winds up as any of the four playoff seeds. Chicago leads the Central as of Monday; the Hogs have a home-and-home Friday and Saturday with the Wolves that could well decide the division.
The recent additions, along with the potential for advancement in the standings, are going to make for a crazy final week of the regular season.
The IceHogs traveled to Texas this past week, claiming a pair of wins to put them on the brink of locking down a postseason berth. Rockford is fourth in the Central and within striking distance of first-place Chicago. Manitoba and Grand Rapids, who, like the Wolves have assured themselves of playoff action, sit just two points ahead of the Hogs.
Wednesday, April 4-Rockford 4, San Antonio 2
Rockford’s fifth win in a row came against a desperate Rampage club that was fighting for their playoff lives. The IceHogs came out on top of a fast-paced contest that saw quality chances turned away at both ends of the ice.
Matthew Highmore got the scoring started 4:21 into the first period, taking a backhand drop pass from Tanner Kero in the slot and five-holing San Antonio goalie Spencer Martin. Kero would wind up missing most of this game with an injury, but got hold of a stretch pass from Carl Dahlstrom coming into the Rampage zone to set up the goal.
The Rockford lead was short-lived, as San Antonio quickly potted goals by Michael Joly and Tommy Vinnelli. The Hogs tied the score late in a wild first period when Anthony Louis hoisted a backhand into the Rampage zone from just inside his blueline toward a waiting Martin. The bouncing puck was mishandled by Martin, allowing Lance Bouma to get to the rebound and knock it into Twine Town at the 17:11 mark.
The rest of the scoring on this night would be provided by rookie forward William Pelletier. The eventual game-winner came early in the second period with Rockford on the penalty kill. Viktor Svedberg got the play started by winning control of the puck along the half boards of the defensive zone. He tapped the biscuit to Highmore, who banked it to Pelletier in neutral ice.
Pelletier streaked down the left side into San Antonio territory, leading Highmore on a two-on-one rush. Electing to hold on to the puck, Pelletier struck gold short side to complete the shorthanded lamp-lighter 3:03 into the period.
Three goals were enough for Collin Delia, who stopped the Rampage’s last 19 shots over the final 40 minutes. Pelletier chased down Tyler Sikura’s clearing attempt in the final minute and guided it into an empty net to put a bow on the victory.
Highmore was voted the game’s first star. Along with Kero, Luc Snuggerud’s night ended early when he came off holding his wrist in the middle of the first period. Both the Hogs and the Rampage went 0-3 on the man advantage.
Friday, April 6-Rockford 3, Texas 2 (SO)
It took an extended shootout to decide this contest. When the smoke cleared, Rockford came out on top thanks to a big blast by Viktor Svedberg.
The piglets went down 1-0 to Texas on a Brent Regner tally late in the first. The IceHogs used a pair of power play goals to take a 2-1 lead by the first few minutes of the third period.
The first Rockford goal came midway through the game. Tyler Sikura was in front of Stars goalie Landon Bow to tip in an Adam Clendening offering from up top, tying the score 1-1 at the 8:56 mark of the second period.
The Hogs took the lead 4:11 into the third when Cody Franson found Chris DiDomenico above the right circle on the man advantage. The shot whizzed by Bow and into the top left corner of the Texas net.
The Stars pulled Bow late in the game and it paid off in the form of a Gavin Bayreuther goal that came off of a long rebound with 1:13 to play. Neither team could convert in Gus Macker Time, necessitating the shootout.
Travis Morin put Texas up 1-0 in the third round of the shootout, but Franson was able to respond for the IceHogs. In the bottom of round five, Svedberg skated to the slot and slapped home the game-winner, earning him first star honors.
Rockford wound up going 2-2 on the power play, while stopping both of the Stars opportunities. Collin Delia made 22 stops on the night as the Hogs picked up their sixth straight win.
Saturday, April 7-Texas 4, Rockford 3
Rockford couldn’t hold onto a two-goal lead in the final period, giving up a trio of Texas goals to drop the final game of a Lone Star road trip.
As he had the night before, Brent Regner put the Stars up 1-0 with a goal 5:51 into the game. This one came on the power play, which would burn Rockford twice on this evening.
The Hogs would draw even late in the first, with Tyler Sikura gaining control of a loose puck in the slot and sending it past Stars goalie Landon Bow at the 18:31 mark. Sikura would get his second goal of the game 4:29 into the second period. This one came from a long-distance attempt from the left half boards.
Rockford gained a 3-1 advantage midway through the second after Anthony Louis whiffed on a centering attempt by Luke Johnson. The puck slid through the circles and onto the waiting stick of Alexandre Fortin, who knocked it past Bow at the 11:29 mark.
Unfortunately for the Hogs, Texas rallied in the final 20 minutes. Brian Flynn sent a slap shot past Rockford goalie Matt Tomkins in the third minute. Roope Hintz skated to the bottom of the left circle and beat Tomkins high to tie the game with 6:13 remaining.
Travis Morin turned a stretch pass from Gavin Bayreuther into a two-on-one rush late in the game. His pass to Joel L’Esperance was one-timed past Tomkins to complete the comeback with 2:54 left.
Tomkins, who was starting his first game for Rockford since February 3, stopped 30 of 34 shots on the night. The IceHogs failed to convert on either of their two power play chances, while Texas was 2-5. Sikura’s two-goal performance was enough to be named the game’s second star.
The Final Countdown
Tuesday night in Iowa would be a great time to punch that playoff ticket. The Wild have plummeted in the standings down the stretch, losing nine of their last ten.
The regular season is an intriguing home-and-home with Chicago Friday and Saturday. The Wolves have locked up a playoff berth but is the type of organization that likes division titles to brag on. Hard to see them resting starters. The Hogs, however, had three straight wins over Chicago in March.
Milwaukee, for those that gaze upon the out-of-town scoreboard, play in Chicago Tuesday, then wind up the season with a home-and-home with Iowa. Nothing is assured yet.
For updates on Rockford’s playoff status this week, follow me @JonFromi on twitter.