The Kool Aid is absolutely flowing over here, and we reserve the right to amend all of this. Thank you.
The Kool Aid is absolutely flowing over here, and we reserve the right to amend all of this. Thank you.
The 2022-23 season ended for the Rockford IceHogs Wednesday night in Cedar Park. The playoffs concluded for Rockford with a 4-2 loss to Texas, giving the Stars a three-game sweep of the Hogs in the Central Division semis.
The IceHogs finish in a similar fashion to last season, when they won a play-in series before being blown out by the eventual AHL Calder Cup champs, the Chicago Wolves. If that’s the case, why do things feel less than satisfying following Rockford’s exit two days ago?
You can start with one word-expectations.
The Blackhawks organization offered some big talk last spring and summer. They backed that up in free agency, building a roster that was designed to compete for a deep playoff run. This, in turn, would provide valuable development time for the organization’s prospects.
The IceHogs prospects did get some playoff experience. However, Rockford lasted no longer than the five games last spring’s scrappers managed in 2022. On paper, this doesn’t seem possible. The veteran firepower collected in the offseason should have been able to win more regularly, secure a higher seed, and reach the division final (or at least extend an opponent past the play-in stage). What happened? Who is to blame for falling short of those expectations?
It’s a long story, with the potential for varied conclusions. Since this is my choose-your-own-analysis, I will cast my first glance toward the crease. If any one decision had the potential to hold the Hogs back this season, it was the way the organization set up the mix at goalie.
The rest of the Hogs AHL roster was heavily reinforced with experienced, veteran talent that could fill in at the NHL level if need be. In contrast, the Blackhawks went into October relying on a tandem of Arvid Soderblom and Jaxson Stauber in goal. That would have been fine, provided the two spent the bulk of the season with the IceHogs. However, that was not to be the case.
Not signing a veteran netminder to float between Rockford and Chicago proved costly nearly from day one. Soderblom was pressed into service with the Hawks after just two starts for the IceHogs. He didn’t return to Rockford until December 18, after being lit up in Chicago for two months. Soderblom struggled to regain confidence in two return starts, suffered a groin injury, and didn’t really get his AHL season in gear until late January.
Nothing’s for sure, of course, but if Soderblom had remained in Rockford, he would have likely picked up 45-50 starts befitting his role of primary starter (and likely the organization’s plan). I would imagine his numbers would have been similar to or better than his 2021-22 totals (38 games, 21-15-2-2, 2.76 GAA, .919 save percentage) than to his more pedestrian stats (33 games, 15-12-5, 2.92, .905) this season.
Once Soderblom settled into Rockford and piled up the starts, he began to resemble the goalie he was in his rookie season. Beginning on January 20, after he returned from the injury, he started 28 of the Hogs final 35 games, posting a 14-9-5 mark with a 2.66 GAA and a .911 save percentage.
Rockford got some credible production in November and December from their two AHL contracts, Dylan Wells and Mitchell Weeks. The offensive explosion came in handy in that span as the IceHogs climbed up the Central Division standings. In particular, a strong December by Wells (4-0-1, 1.95, .928) pushed Rockford into contention with Texas for the top spot in the division.
Stauber had his ups and downs this season. He was out a couple of weeks with an injury in November and spent two months with the Hawks, going 5-1 in January and February before finishing the season with just five more appearances in Rockford in the last six weeks of action. His AHL time showed flashes but Stauber never really got a steady stretch of game action to work toward any consistency. His Rockford numbers: a 6-8 record, a 3.32 GAA and an .894 save percentage.
There were many times this fall and winter when I pointed out that the Hogs would go as far as their goaltending could take them. What would a dozen additional starts from Soderblom have done to Rockford’s point total? Injuries happen, but it’s fair to believe Soderblom and the IceHogs would have been better off had he remained in Rockford in the first half of the season.
By the time Soderblom played his way back into form, the offense that was the IceHogs calling card in the first three months dropped way off. Shuffling pieces of the roster at the trade deadline didn’t prove to be a springboard to success. Key pieces of the lineup were recalled to Chicago, leaving a thin roster for about six weeks until some of the top scorers returned. These things happen in the AHL; at some point, control isn’t an option.
What could have been handled better was hedging bets on two injury-prone goalies in Chicago. Soderblom did not return to the Blackhawks following his return; the organization elected to recall Stauber was recalled in January, which allowed Soderblom to pile up the starts. Anton Khudobin, obtained at the trade deadline, would have been the perfect solution for Chicago (albeit a pricy one) to keep its two prospects toiling in Rockford.
Looking ahead, it would appear that Soderblom will be re-singed and continue his development in Chicago next season. The early forecast on the Hogs tandem would seem to suggest Drew Commesso and Stauber will be the approach.
Weeks will be back for the second year of his AHL deal. He was excellent (15-5-1, 2.35 GAA, .916 save percentage) for the Indy Fuel in addition to solid numbers in 12 appearances in Rockford (5-2-3, 2.72, .906), so he should provide quality play in a pinch. Still, a veteran goalie on a two-way deal would be a welcome addition come July.
The forward bunch had a lot to do with Rockford’s fortunes this season, both good and bad. I will take a more detailed look at the Hogs skaters, along with the trade deadline moves that factored into the final results, in the coming weeks.
Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the spring and into the offseason.
The Bears are out of The Box, and once again John is (w)right in his analysis. Thank you.
The Rockford IceHogs dug themselves a mighty big hole at the BMO Center this weekend. With two chances to grab some momentum in their Central Division Semifinal series with Texas, the Hogs whiffed against the division’s top club. Texas returns home with a 2-0 series advantage on the strength of a superior transition game and a knack for capitalizing on IceHogs mistakes.
Game 3 is Wednesday night in Cedar Park. Rockford must win three in a row on the road to stay in the playoffs. To do that, the Hogs will need to start making passes with purpose, as opposed to sending pucks into the ether.
Friday’s 5-3 loss was pivotal, as it was a game well within reach of the piglets. Rockford let two leads slip away through sloppy passing and overzealousness.
The Stars took a 1-0 lead on a Rhett Gardner tally 12:34 into the contest. Lukas Reichel dropped a pass to no one in the neutral zone, leading to a Texas rush to the net. Rockford then built a 2-1 advantage on a power-play goal by Joey Anderson in the final seconds of the first period, followed by a D.J. Busdeker goal 1:16 into the second.
Texas was able to use a misplay by Rockford goalie Arvid Soderblom behind his own net in the second period to erase the deficit. Marian Studenic did the honors 14:33 into the middle frame. After the IceHogs took a 3-2 advantage early in the third on Bobby Lynch’s put-back, the Stars got the equalizer from Scott Reedy on the power play after a Mike Hardman elbowing penalty.
The game-winner was a direct result of a blind spinning pass from the stick of Reichel, who is still looking for his first point of the playoffs. Stars defenseman Alex Petrovic hauled in the puck in the high slot to start the rush the other way. Mavrik Bourque skated the puck to the left circle before finding Nicholas Caamano, who had snuck behind Issak Phillips, for a tap-in with less than four minutes remaining in the third period. Studenic found the empty net late for his second goal of the night.
On Sunday, the big guns came out to play for the Stars. Curtis McKenzie and Riley Barber gave Texas a 2-0 lead heading into the third period. Anderson got the Hogs on the board early in the third, but that’s as close as things got. Barber got his second of the evening 16:32 into the third, with Tanner Kero adding an empty-netter in the final minute.
Wednesday’s Game 3 is set to start at Cedar Park’s H.E.B. Center at 7:00 p.m. Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for updates.
Prospect Perverts welcome for this one. Happy Birthday Sam (tomorrow on the 27th).
The Rockford IceHogs have advanced to the Central Division Semifinals for the second year in a row. It’s a familiar tale-the piglets sweep their play-in opponents and are rewarded with the division’s top club in a best-of-five series.
Last season, the Hogs swept Texas before being swept themselves by the Chicago Wolves. This season, Rockford won two straight overtime decisions against Iowa in the play-in series. The team awaiting them? The Stars, who finished the regular season by winning five of their last seven games for the Central Division title.
How did the IceHogs get into this position? To recap:
Rockford’s additional depth certainly helped get over the hump against the Wild, especially in Game Two. The bottom six were active at both ends of the ice, something that will have to happen consistently against Texas when the division semis begin. That will be on Friday at the BMO, where the IceHogs play host for the opening game of the series.
Last spring, I believed that the piglets matched up well with the Wolves and might have a chance to surprise them. Wrong; Chicago shifted into another gear and completely overwhelmed a young Rockford team on the way to the Calder Cup. Sure, Texas was the class of the division this season. However, I again believe that the Hogs can present a stiff challenge for the Stars.
At the BMO Center back on January 3, Rockford beat Texas (who was also in first place at the time) 4-3 in overtime. The IceHogs roster was still as it was for much of the season’s first three months. In eight meetings with the Stars in the regular season, Rockford was 5-3. It’s safe to say that Texas is more than capable of ramping up its game for the playoffs. As opposed to last spring, I feel like the IceHogs are equally capable of raising their game a level.
Rockford carries more experience into this series than it did against the Wolves. Several prospects like Soderblom, Teply, Lukas Reichel, Issak Phillips, Jakub Galvas, and Mike Hardman were part of last season’s playoff team. Add in high-scoring playoff veterans like David Gust, Rocco Grimaldi, and Luke Philp, and there is plenty of postseason experience on hand.
This is not to say that the Stars don’t know their way around a playoff game. Long-time Texas captain Curtis McKenzie has several long postseason runs, including a Calder Cup with the Stars back in 2014. McKenzie has been around the AHL for a dozen years, but is still a dangerous scorer who had 22 goals and 32 helpers this season.
Veteran Riley Barber (32 G, 32 A) led Texas in scoring and had eight game-winning goals for the Stars. The Hogs will also have to contend with former Rockford forward Tanner Kero (17 G, 33 A), Marian Studenic (21 G, 27 A), and rookies Mavrik Bourque (20 G, 27 A) and Matej Blumel (19 G, 25 A).
Anchoring Texas in net is Matthew Murray, who finishes up his first full AHL season with a record of 18-10-5 to go with a 2.37 GAA and a .911 save percentage. One of the leagues best goalies, Murray has not been good in three prior matchups with the Hogs this season. In those games, he is 0-2-1 with a 5.09 GAA and an .849 save percentage. He was a tough man to get a puck past in last spring’s playoff sweep of Texas, in which he played both games.
As poorly as Murray was against Rockford this season, Soderblom was even worse against the Stars. He gave up four goals in a loss to Texas on February 22. In the other start, Soderblom’s first after a couple of months with the Blackhawks, ended midway through the second period after he surrendered five goals on 12 shots.
Murray’s play earns Texas the edge in goal heading into the series. However, Soderblom turned in solid performances against the Wild and is carrying a 2.13 GAA and a .925 save percentage over his last eight games dating back to March 31. Soderblom was a couple of saves better than Jesper Wallstedt last week. If he can match Murray this weekend, Rockford has a chance to pick up one or both of the first two games.
The Hogs are smack dab in the middle of exactly what the organization wanted from it’s AHL affiliate; meaningful spring hockey games. How many additional games Rockford gets factors on if it can hold its own in the crease and control what promises to be a track meet in terms of pace.
The AHL’s travel policy affords the IceHogs a chance to get the most out of their two home dates. Grabbing a Game One win on Friday is the obvious course of action; it would be nice to see Rockford extend the Stars at the very least.
Follow me @JonFromi for the occasional thought and game update throughout the playoffs.
The End Of An Era, and but the weirdness remains. Thank you for your continued patronage.
The Rockford IceHogs squeaked into the Calder Cup Playoffs by winning three of their last four games in the last week of the regular season. After an epic 6-3 victory over the surging Chicago Wolves Wednesday night, Rockford edged the Griffins in Grand Rapids Friday before coming up short in the home finale to Manitoba Saturday night. Needing a win to keep the Wolves at bay in sixth place, the piglets used a strong opening period to defeat Milwaukee 4-1 on the road Sunday.
Rockford opens the Central Division play-in series Wednesday night at the BMO Center against the Iowa Wild, a team with whom the Hogs have been involved in a lot of close contests in the season series. The play-in is a best-of-three affair; the action will move to DesMoines for games on Friday and, if necessary, Sunday.
The Wild won the regulation wins tiebreaker with Rockford. Both teams finished with 79 points. In twelve matchups this season, the Wild hold a 7-3-1-1 advantage against Rockford. Iowa is 4-0-1-1 in Rockford, while the teams split six games in DesMoines. The IceHogs won four of the last five meetings, with the Wild shutting out Rockford 2-0 at the BMO Center in the last tilt between the teams on February 25. Seven of the twelve games required overtime or a shootout to decide the winner, so buckle up.
This promises to be a series that hinges on just a few bounces of the puck. How’s it gonna go? This is playoff hockey between two evenly matched teams. Here’s how things look entering Wednesday’s puck drop.
The IceHogs came out firing this season and challenged for the division lead for most of the first three months of the season. The offensive firepower took a hit with roster call-ups in January, when Rockford lost seven straight games. The Hogs struggled to play .500 hockey from there, having to adjust to a trade-deadline roster shake-up. They do come in with a deep a roster as they’ve had all season.
Rocco Grimaldi (33 G, 40 A) came aboard at the trade deadline from San Diego and has contributed six goals and 11 helpers in 16 games with Rockford. David Gust (26 G, 33 A), Brett Seney (23 G, 31 A) and Luke Philp (29 G, 24 A) have been the heart of the Hogs offense all season.
Recently back with the Hogs is Lukas Reichel (20 G, 31 A), who was an AHL All-Star along with Seney and Gust. The x-factor may be in the form of Joey Anderson, who was assigned to Rockford this past weekend by the Blackhawks. Anderson had 27 points (14 G, 13 A) in 30 games with the Toronto Marlies earlier this season and was paired with Grimaldi and Reichel to much success in Rockford’s final three games.
With the addition of Reichel and Anderson, the Hogs can send out two very potent scoring lines, along with a pair of lines that can bang with the Wild at both ends. This group includes Bobby Lynch (11 G, 8 A), Buddy Robinson (9 G, 11 A), Mike Hardman (5 G, 13 A), and D.J. Busdeker (4 G, 9 A). Defensively, Rockford’s pairings are chock full of developing prospects like Issak Phillips (6 G, 17 A), Jakub Galvas (3 G, 26 A), Alec Regula (5 G, 16 A), and Alex Vlasic (2 G, 17 A).
IceHogs goalie Arvid Soderblom (15-12-5, 2.92 GAA, .905 save percentage) has been up and down this season, but has raised his game against Iowa. In five starts, Soderblom is 4-0-1 with a 1.93 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. His best outing came on February 24, a 29-save performance in Rockford’s 3-1 win.
It’s good that Soderblom has been sharp against the Wild, because it solidifies the need for Rockford to send the second-year prospect out to the crease for as long as the IceHogs remain in the playoffs. It was the organization’s plan to make Soderblom the workhorse this season before his services were needed in Chicago early in the season. Upon returning from an injury on January 20, he’s started 28 of the IceHogs 35 games. Soderblom started the last seven games of the regular season and eleven of the last twelve.
Dylan Wells, the primary starter early in the season for Rockford, was traded to Dallas at the deadline. The only other goalie who has seen the ice for the Hogs since is Jaxson Stauber. In five appearances since coming back from his own stint with the Blackhawks, Stauber is 0-4 with a 3.88 GAA and an .890 save percentage. He also hasn’t played in almost three weeks.
Anton Khudobin is on the roster, though he hasn’t made an appearance for Rockford since coming over for Wells in February. Drew Commesso is also signed to a PTO, but he’s likely just along for the ride. It’s Soderblom or bust for the piglets. Rockford goes as far as he can take them.
Iowa put together a league-high 14-point streak in January and February. From December 28 to February 4, the Wild went 11-1-3-2, then proceeded to lose seven straight. Iowa recovered to finish 12-6-1-1 in its last 20 games. Like Rockford, Iowa posted a win on Sunday, beating Texas 5-2 to punch its playoff ticket.
The Wild are paced by veteran center Nic Petan, who set career-highs in goals (23) and points (62) in 53 games for Iowa. Rookie Sammy Walker (27 G, 21 A) led Iowa in goals, while Adam Beckman added 24 goals in 53 games. Marco Rossi (16 G, 35 A) and Steven Fogarty (19 G, 30 A) are also big point producers for the Wild.
Rossi leads Iowa with 14 points (3 G, 11 A) in eleven games against Rockford this season. Fogarty paces the Wild with seven goals and also has five helpers in his ten games against the IceHogs. Petan (3 G, 7 A) has a pair of game-winners over Rockford.
Joe Hicketts (6 G, 42 A) is a seven-year veteran defenseman who provides the spark on the Wild power play. He has three goals and 24 helpers on the man advantage. The Iowa blueline also sports Dakota Mermis (5 G, 21 A) and tough defender Turner Ottenbreit (4 G, 8 A).
In net, rookie Jesper Wallstedt (18-15-5-1, 2.68 GAA, .908 save percentage) and veteran Zane McIntyre (16-12-5-3, 2.87 GAA, .899 save percentage) have alternated starts all season, appearing in all but one game for the Wild this season. It’s been one, then the other, for the last 20 games of Iowa’s schedule. Each have been solid against the Hogs. Wallstedt is 4-2-1 with a 2.35 GAA and a .922 save percentage. McIntyre is 3-1-0-1 with a 2.60 GAA and a .907 save percentage.
Whether Iowa coach Tim Army elects to keep the tandem going or go with just one goalie, the Wild has a slight edge in the crease, at least on paper. Fortunately, this series will be played on ice, both at the BMO Center and at Wells Fargo Arena.
If Rockford can set an up-tempo pace and maintain order in both zones, while getting Soderblom’s best hockey, there is a good chance that the IceHogs can advance to the next round against Texas. It might well take extra skating on a Sunday afternoon to do so, but it projects to be that close.
Will the additions to roster put Rockford over the top in this series? We find out soon.
Game One-BMO Center, Rockford, Illinois, Wednesday, April 19, 7:00 p.m. CDT
Game Two-Wells Fargo Arena, DesMoines, Iowa, Friday, April 21, 7:00 p.m. CDT
Game Three-Wells Fargo Arena, DesMoines Iowa, Sunday, April 23, 3:00 p.m. CDT (If necessary)
Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for updates and reflections on this play-in series.