Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs playoffs were unceremoniously ended by the Chicago Wolves over the weekend. Rockford dropped three straight to the Wolves, looking very overmatched. After having a lot of success against their interstate rival in the regular season, it wasn’t far-fetched to think the piglets could compete with the best team in the AHL.

Instead, Chicago shifted into a gear that the Hogs could not match.

The Wolves were able to keep Rockford on its heels for the entire series. The details varied a bit, but the formula was the same: swamp the Hogs in their own zone and hammer away at goalie Arvid Soderblom. Chicago out-shot Rockford 127-61 overall and prevented the IceHogs from putting any kind of offense together.

Here’s a quick rundown of the Wolves sweep:

Game 1: On Thursday night, Lukas Reichel forced a turnover and skated in for the first goal of the contest. That would be the only lead the Hogs would hold. Chicago potted two goals in the final minute of the first period, then scored three times on the way to a 6-2 win at Allstate Arena.

Game 2: The Wolves treated the first period like a 20-minute power play Friday. Rockford, who managed a single shot in the opening frame, held on for dear life until a pair of goals late in the period gave Chicago a 2-0 advantage. From there, the Wolves cruised to a 4-1 win.

Game 3: The IceHogs did their best to extend the series, but fell behind early at the BMO Harris Bank Center on Sunday afternoon. Rockford actually put together its only serious pressure in the Wolves zone in the second stanza. Not only did the Hogs fail to score, however, but Chicago made it 2-0 late in the period. Rockford mustered a goal down three in the third, but the Wolves converted a 5-on-3 chance to end the IceHogs season with a 4-1 victory.

Rockford didn’t play terrible. Soderblom had a .910 save percentage in the final two games and the IceHogs were still routed. Chicago simply overwhelmed them. Rockford’s only even-strength goals came in Game 1; Reichel’s steal and score and another forced turnover that wound up in the Wolves net via Evan Barratt.

Alec Regula went coast-to-coast for a sweet power-play goal in Game 2. Ian Mitchell followed up a nifty move in the corner into a power-play snipe over Alex Lyon’s glove in the final period of Game 3. None of these goals were the result of steady presence in the Wolves zone.

It’s a sudden end to a pretty decent 2021-22 campaign for the Hogs. That’s the playoffs, kids. It would have been nice to see a couple or additional games, but once the Wolves flipped the switch it was just a matter of a more talented, more experienced squad taking care of business.

In the coming weeks, I’ll break down the season offer some thoughts on the highs and lows contained within. Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for some musings on the Hogs in the wake of their playoff exit.

 

Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs have advanced to the Central Division Semifinal via a sweep of Texas in their play-in series. The piglets capped off an impressive defensive performance against the Stars with a 1-0 overtime triumph after winning Game 1 by a score of 2-1.

Rookie goalie Arvid Soderblom stopped 68 of 69 Texas Stars in the two games, good for a .986 save percentage. To the surprise of no one, he was voted the First Star of Game 2 for his 36-save shutout.

After a couple of days to prepare, Rockford opens a best-of-five series with the Chicago Wolves in Rosemont on Thursday night. The Wolves are the top seed in the Central Division. They won more games in the regular season than any team in the league. Their .724 points percentage was the best in the AHL.

The Wolves roster boasts the leagues top goal scorer (Stefan Noessen, 48 goals) as well at the league’s top point-producer (Andrew Poturalski, 101 points). On paper, the Flying Piglets of ‘Bago County will be lucky to win a single game.

Not only do I think the Hogs could win one game, I figure the belief is there for Rockford to shock everyone and win this series.

These teams met 12 times in the regular season. Rockford won eight times.

The IceHogs are 5-0-0-1 at Allstate Arena this season.

Each of the last five meetings was a one-goal decision. Rockford was 4-1 in those games.

The last meeting between Rockford and the Wolves came in the regular-season finale April 30. Chicago was gunning to out-do Stockton for the AHL’s top record. The IceHogs had nothing to gain, having been locked into fourth in the division.

Rockford rested several starters, including Soderblom. Chicago pinned back its ears and swamped the Hogs in their own zone. The Wolves out-shot Rockford 54-25 on the evening.

And yet, the IceHogs had an offensive draw in the final 30 seconds with a chance to tie the contest before ultimately losing 3-2.

Rockford can win this series. They know it. The Wolves know it.

The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Chicago was the division champ. The Wolves were swept by the fourth-seeded Hogs. That history, plus Rockford’s success against this year’s division champs, makes it unlikely that the piglets are going to be taken lightly by Chicago.

What does Rockford have going for it? Confidence and momentum. They have a hot goalie heading into a series against a team that hasn’t had a game in what will be 12 days when the teams collide on Thursday, May 12.

The Hogs calling card for much of the last couple of months is solid play in the defensive zone and timely goals from a host of young prospects. They’ve had a wildly successful season and have nothing to lose as they enter this series.

 

Playoff Musings

  • The goal scorers in Game 1 were Lukas Reichel and Carson Gicewicz. Reichel deftly handled a pass from Michal Teply on a 2-on-1 in the second period and snapped home the first goal of the game. Gicewicz deflected an Issak Phillips shot past Stars goalie Matthew Murray (who played very well in the two games for Texas) for the eventual game-winner.
  • After a scoreless regulation, Dylan McLaughlin got loose in the high slot, hauled in a pass from Phillips, and sniped the Game 2 winner 56 seconds into overtime.
  • The secondary assist on McLaughlin’s goal went to Ian Mitchell, who returned from a wrist injury suffered in practice April 26.
  • IceHogs forwards Kurtis Gabriel, Dimitri Osipov, and Garrett Mitchell played their part in the series sweep. The three were able to regularly administer devastating hits to Texas skaters without so much as a single infraction between them. In all, the IceHogs committed just three penalties in the two games.
  • Forward Andrei Altybarmakian, who came on strong in the last month of the season, did not skate in either game of the series. His last game action was April 30 in Milwaukee.
  • Game 1 vs Chicago will take place at Allstate Arena on Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 p.m. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night at 7:00 p.m., with Game 3 coming to the BMO Harris Bank Center Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for updates and thoughts throughout Rockford’s playoff run.

Baseball

The Cubs’ fall from grace was fast and frankly, expected—they haven’t won a series yet this year outside of their first against the Brewers, catching them when Milwaukee’s pitching seemed to think the season started a week later than it really did. The Brewers are back to the top of the NL Central standings and their pitchers are back to shutting the Cubs out, outscoring them this past weekend 20-4. The defending World Series champion Braves also mostly dominated the Cubs, winning two out of three games. There’s not a lot you can do against a team with multiple Gold Glove winners—the Cubs aren’t that team anymore.

Slightly more concerning is the fact that the Cubs pitching continues to be a rollercoaster ride I’d prefer to get off of. The starters largely haven’t been able to hold things together, meaning the bullpen is eating innings like nobody’s business. And we saw exactly what happened when this same scenario went down for the Cubs last year, and that was a significantly better team than what we’re trotting out this year. We are still without staples like Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay and Wade Miley, but so far the starters who were supposed to be holding it down largely aren’t doing that right now.

  • Mark Leiter Jr. finally got optioned, as the Cubs tried to cram him in as a starter despite him not having played in the MLB since 2018. It went about as well as you’d think, as he took the mound against the Braves on Wednesday trying to improve upon his ERA of 11.05. He stayed in for the first 2 innings, which took him 45 pitches to get through, and only four of them were called strikes. He then came in as a bullpen guy on Friday after Hendricks had already given up 7 runs. Leiter Jr. pitched one inning in which he had three strikeouts and only one hit. He seems to be better and more comfortable there, and if he does get called up again that is a better place for him to stay than as a starter.
  • Marcus Stroman has been an experience for the Cubs, being objectively bad all the way up until Sunday’s game when he finally got his first win of the season. Stroman can at least throw strikeouts, but the hits he gives up can get dicey, especially if Michael Hermosillo is playing at center and has to field just about every ball in just about every at-bat. It got almost comical on Tuesday. I’m just praying Stroman can build on Sunday’s win, where he pitched 7 innings and only allowed two hits. That’s the kind of performance he needs to be consistently putting up if this team is going to not be shit for the next 5 months.
  • Even Seiya Suzuki cooled down a bit this past week, with eight strikeouts in his past six games and a three-game hitless streak Saturday-Monday. He’s also only had one walk since April 21, showing that pitchers around the league have started to figure him out a little bit. This is what I was expecting to start out the season, as players are streaky throughout the year. But the Cubs are better when Seiya is hitting, and he is still 16th in the league in OPS, so hopefully he’s able to get hot again soon.
  • Comparing Anthony Rizzo’s offensive numbers so far this year against Frank Schwindel’s brings me great sadness.

The Cubs play the White Sox (9-13) and the Dodgers (14-7) this week. It will probably go as bad as you can imagine against Los Angeles, but if the Cubs can get quality starts they might have a chance against the Sox. But quality starts are really a necessity at this point. Go Cubs go!

Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs have extended the time they have to develop some key prospects by qualifying for the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs. The postseason gets underway Wednesday night at the BMO Harris Bank Center, when the IceHogs play Texas Stars in a best-of-three play-in series.

Rockford is the fourth-seed and will host the fifth-seeded Stars for every game of the series, per the league’s travel guidelines. The winner moves on to face the Central Division champs, the Chicago Wolves in a best-of-five affair.

Here is the postseason forecast for the Piglets as I see it.

First of all, it would not shock me for the IceHogs to knock off any of their Central Division rivals in a playoff series. Even after dropping a 3-2 decision to the Wolves in the regular season finale Saturday night, Rockford finished 8-3-0-1 against Chicago. They have split the season series with Texas and Milwaukee and were 5-3 against Manitoba. The only Central opponent that dominated them (Iowa) is not in the playoffs.

The IceHogs have generated enough offense to be competitive. For the first time in a couple of seasons, Rockford posted a per game average of over three goals this season. The Hogs 3.10 per game clip was their highest since the 2017-18 season, when they reached the Western Conference Final scoring 3.14 goals per contest.

Unlike that veteran-laden group, this year’s group have been grinding out wins for the bulk of the season. A poised and deep blueline, coupled with very capable goaltending, have been the ticket in the past couple of months. This could prove to be a major strength in the postseason.

Or, the youngsters could get bounced in two games by a hot Texas team that won its last four games. Such is the mystery of playoff hockey. Some confidence and a hot goalie can take you far. A slow start could quickly slam the door on a very solid season for Rockford.

 

Roster News

On Sunday, the Blackhawks assigned D Nolan Allen and F Colton Dach to the IceHogs following the conclusion of their junior seasons. I wouldn’t expect either to play. Maybe one or both could step in and make a surprise impact. I would avoid holding my breath on it, though.

Chicago could also assign some players like G Collin Delia, D Alex Vlasic to bolster the IceHogs roster. As of Monday, they have not done so. At this point, it looks like Rockford will dance with the players it has leaned on for the last month of action.

Ian Mitchell has been out of the lineup since injuring his right wrist in practice last Tuesday. He would be set to come back late in the week, but is probably out for the opening series. The IceHogs depth at defense makes this a little easier to bear, but Mitchell was voted the team’s top defenseman award for good reason. His return makes the Hogs a bit tougher to play against.

D.J. Busdeker returned from a shoulder injury for the last two games of the season, though Brett Connolly is likely out for the duration of the playoffs with a knee injury.

Cale Morris took the net against the Wolves Saturday and stopped 50 shots in the loss. I would imagine that he will back up Arivd Soderblom, who, along with F Dylan McLaughlin, were selected co-MVPs for Rockford this season.

 

Under The Microscope: The Texas Stars

Rockford battled the Stars eight times this season. Both teams won four games. The season series concluded way back on February 27, when Texas won 3-2 at the BMO.

The Stars were 9-4-1 in April, while Rockford wound up 9-6. Of all the possible opponents for the piglets to have, Texas is the one who shouldn’t intimidate the Hogs physically.

There are four players who took the ice in the 2018 Western Conference Final contested between these two franchises; all currently reside on the Stars roster. This includes former Hogs forwards Anthony Louis (24 G, 31 A) and Tanner Kero (5 G, 12 A), as well as Texas captain Curtis McKenzie (21 G, 29 A) and Joel L’Esperance (24 G, 25 A).

Center Ty Dellandrea had an impressive rookie campaign, with a 50-point season (23 G, 27 A). Riley Damiani (13 G, 23 A) was last year’s outstanding rookie in the AHL and could play a big part in the opening series. Ben Gleason (9 G, 35 A) and Ryan Shea (3 G, 29 A) pace the Texas defense.

The x-factor in this series could well lay in the crease. Matthew Murray has been used quite a bit since signing an ATO out of UMass this spring. He split time with second-year goalie Adam Scheel, who was recalled to Dallas on Saturday.

If Murray winds up being the man in net for Texas, he’s coming in hot. Currently, he is sporting a 1.68 GAA and a .947 save percentage in his six AHL starts. Likely to serve as Murray’s backup is LaGrange native Matt Jurusik.

 

Keys For The IceHogs

  • Rockford needs to be to limit the Stars speed in transition and continue to take care of the puck in their own zone. That’s been the formula for the Hogs success this season; no reason to change things up.
  • Players like Mike Hardman (19 G, 13 A), Michal Teply (13 G, 18 A) and Andrei Altybarmakian (10 G, 21 A) have to capitalize on the play-making abilities of Lukas Reichel (the team’s Rookie Of The Year with 21 goals and 36 helpers) and McLaughlin.
  • In 14 April games, Josiah Slavin has eight goals and seven assists. He is a big part of the Hogs penalty kill and leads the team with three shorthanded goals.  It’s important for Slavin to continue leading Rockford’s forecheck against the Stars. Slavin’s game should be well-suited for playoff hockey; he could have a big series.
  • Slavin sat out the final regular season game with Chicago along with Altybarmakian, Alec Regula, Kurtis Gabriel and Soderblom. Texas has been off since April 26, but both teams should be rested and ready Wednesday night.

 

Schedule

Game One is set to begin on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., as will Game Two on Friday. If necessary, Game Three will start at 6:00 p.m.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the Calder Cup Playoffs.