A review of The Cure show. And some Sports Thoughts. 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 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.
- There was no need for Hartman to finish a check as far behind the play as he was. Same for Reichel just forcing pucks into areas with nary a teammate in sight. Rockford can not afford to make mistakes like these against the best offensive team in the league. Texas can and did make the Hogs pay for those mistakes Friday night.
- Soderblom played pretty well for most of the first two games. Before coughing up the puck in the second period Friday, he prevented at least two pucks from finding the net. Sunday was another good, but not great, type of performance. Matthew Murray was the better goalie in both games.
- Several times during Friday’s game, fans were warned not to throw objects onto the ice. Midway through the third period, a puck was tossed over the glass, initially resulting in a delay of game call against Rockford. It turned out that a Texas fan had committed the transgression, so the penalty was rescinded and the fan was removed from the game.
- The IceHogs played a smarter game on Sunday, but just couldn’t get a puck past Murray at several key moments. This included hitting a post on a second-period power-play chance.
- Jalen Luypen, who was signed to an entry contract by the Hawks last fall, made his AHL debut on Friday and also played in Sunday’s tilt. Centering the fourth line, he certainly did not look out of place for Rockford.
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.
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:
- In Game One Wednesday, a pretty healthy (for a weeknight) crowd was on hand at the BMO Center to watch a back-and-forth affair that came to a halt when Rocco Grimaldi forced a turnover in the Wild zone. After knocking down Nic Petan’s attempt to clear the puck, Grimaldi streaked to the right dot and sent the game-winner past Iowa goalie Jesper Wallstedt 3:59 into overtime.
- The Hogs lost a 2-1 lead early in the third period of Friday’s Game Two in DesMoines. Rockford fell behind 3-2 but tied the game on a Michal Teply put-back midway through the final frame. Arvid Soderblom made a key stop on Steven Fogarty’s point-blank shot from the left post 30 seconds into overtime. A minute later, Grimaldi skated a puck behind the net and tried to find Lukas Reichel out front. The pass did not connect, but Alex Vlasic hauled it in at the top of the left circle, skated to the half boards, and threw a shot on goal that Buddy Robinson was able to redirect past Wallstedt. Rockford knocked Iowa out of the series with the 4-3 triumph.
- The following day, the Wild announced that they were moving on from a good portion of their AHL coaching staff, including head coach Tim Army. (I’m not sure that is a direct consequence of the IceHogs sweep, but I’m mentioning it all the same.)
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.