The Rockford IceHogs, AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, got themselves into the win column in style over the weekend. The piglets picked up their first points of the 2019-20 campaign with a home-and-home sweep of the Chicago Wolves.
After besting their interstate rival 3-2 at the BMO Harris Bank Center Friday night, the IceHogs made the trip to Allstate Arena and posted a 3-2 overtime win. Rockford has a ways to go to get themselves into the upper half of the Central Division standings, but two wins over your closest neighbor has to feel pretty good.
The Hogs currently sit in seventh place in the division with a 2-3 record. Iowa has yet to be defeated in regulation and leads the Central with a eleven points in six games. San Antonio is second with eight standings points; Milwaukee and Texas each have seven.
Rockford’s 2.20 goals per game average is second-worst in the Western Conference. The IceHogs have also started the season 0-18 on the man advantage. Not surprisingly, that’s the nadir of the AHL through the first three weeks of action.
Despite the Hogs struggles on offense, the arrow is pointed up at the moment. Rockford got some great play in net from Collin Delia Friday and Matt Tomkins on Saturday. Tomkins, who is with the IceHogs while Kevin Lankinen recovers from an upper body injury, picked up his first career AHL victory with a 31-save performance.
Following Friday’s game, Kirby Dach was recalled from his conditioning stint by the Blackhawks. Dach went pointless in three games with Rockford, but played pretty well. He was entrusted with a lot of minutes by Hogs coach Derek King.
Dach’s departure leaves 17 forwards on the current roster. That’s just way too many if King has to find steady minutes for everyone. For whatever reason, the Hawks loaded up on entry deals this spring and summer. There are only three AHL contracts among the forward corps. Two of them won’t be going anywhere soon.
Kris Versteeg wasn’t signed to play in Indy. The Hogs captain will be in Rockford all season. Versteeg left Friday’s win after the first period and did not play Saturday. King gave the impression that the injury was not serious; I’ll take him at his word until I don’t see Versteeg in the lineup in Cleveland this weekend.
Tyler Sikura is also a mainstay in King’s lineup, and rightly so. At 27 and on an AHL contract, Sikura the Elder is not a prospect. However, he is a huge part of this team at both ends of the ice.
Sikura plays a simple game, but he has shown a consistent ability to finish the scoring opportunities he creates. He had a two-goal night in Chicago Saturday, including the game-winner. Sikura not only scored the overtime goal, he created the scoring chance by forcing a turnover.
Sikura is an excellent penalty killer and also provides grit on the power play. On a squad with a microscopic veteran presence, Sikura stands out as a skater who can put points on the scoreboard.
Rockford has seven rookies in the forward bunch. The only players besides Versteeg who are even close to veteran status are Sikura, Nick Moutrey and 26-year-old Swede Anton Wedin, who has points in three of his four games.
Imagine the log jam there would be if Graham Knott and Nathan Noel, both on the final year of entry contracts, were in Rockford instead of Indy right now. Still, minutes are going to be hard-earned with so many forwards.
Mikael Hakkarainen is still dealing with an injury suffered opening night. John Quenneville took a big hit in the third period Saturday and could miss some time in addition to Versteeg. King is still trying to find chemistry in his line combinations. Expect to see several youngsters in and out of the lineup in the next month.
The defensive situation is nowhere near as crowded. King iced the same six skaters on the blueline in both games after Adam Boqvist took a puck in the mouth Friday morning at practice. Unless Jack Ramsey, who was sent back to Indy last week, is recalled, I’d expect Boqvist to be ready to roll in Cleveland.
I have really been impressed by Philip Holm so far. He’s been a stabilizing force on the defense and has show a knack for getting into the action on offense. Holm has a pair of goals and an assist so far and is third on the club with 12 shots on goal.
Wedin, like Sikura, has been solid at both ends. Holm, Sikura and Wedin all have two goals and an assist through five games. Dylan Sikura leads the club with three goals and an apple. He’s also a plus-three with 16 shots on goal. Both are team highs.
Friday, October 18-Rockford 3, Chicago 2
The Hogs rode a dominant first period to their first victory of the season in an Illinois Lottery Cup matchup with the Wolves.
All three Rockford tallies were recorded in the opening frame. The IceHogs out shot Chicago 17-4 in that span. The first goal came 5:28 into the game, after Brandon Hagel just missed getting his stick on Phillipp Kurashev’s centering pass in front of Wolves goalie Garret Sparks.
Dylan Sikura got a hold of the loose puck and sent it around the end boards, where Hagel wound up with it. Skating to the right faceoff dot, Hagel centered to Sikura, who converted the offering into his third goal of the season and a 1-0 Rockford lead.
Alexandre Fortin was the catalyst for a shorthanded goal midway through the period, swiping the puck from Chicago’s Reid Duke and streaking to the Wolves net.
The shot attempt was stopped by the right pad of Sparks, but the Chicago skaters mishandled the long rebound and Fortin wound up with the puck on his stick at the right post. John Quenneville was behind the Wolves goalie, sliding in the short feed across the goal line at the 12:48 mark.
Late in the first, Jacob Nilsson hauled in a stretch pass from Chad Krys and powered his way to the Chicago net. Sparks stopped the attempt, but the loose puck slid into the right circle. Hagel did a nice job tying up the stick of Wolves wing Tyrell Goulbourne, allowing Anton Wedin to scoop up the loose biscuit. Wedin looped into the slot and beat Sparks to the far post with a wrist shot, making it 3-0 IceHogs heading into the first intermission.
Rockford was not as effective in the next forty minutes, particularly at the faceoff dot. The Wolves got a goal from Jaycob Megna in the second period and a power play strike by Gage Quinney late in the third. However, the Hogs managed to hang on to secure the victory.
Captain Kris Versteeg left the game following the first period and did not return to action.
Lines (Starters in italics)
John Quenneville-Tyler Sikura-Alexandre Fortin
Matthew Highmore-Kirby Dach-Dylan Sikura
Kris Versteeg (C)-Phillipp Kurashev-Aleksi Saarela
Anton Wedin-Jacob Nilsson (A)-Brandon Hagel
Dennis Gilbert (A)-Lucas Carlsson
Philip Holm-Nicolas Beaudin
Chad Krys-Joni Tuulola
Power Play (0-5)
Penalty Kill (Wolves were 1-6, Rockford posted a shorthanded goal.)
Forwards-Highmore, T. Sikura, Wedin, Nilsson, Quenneville, Fortin
Defense-Gilbert, Tuulola, Krys, Holm
Saturday, October 19-Rockford 3, Chicago 2 (OT)
Tyler Sikura and Matt Tomkins, two of Rockford’s AHL contracts were the big names at Allstate Arena Saturday. Sikura had two goals, including the game-winner, while Tomkins picked up the win with 31 stops on the night.
Rockford scored first via a Sikura goal 12:22 into the contest. The play was set up by Lucas Carlsson, who sent a clearing pass to Dylan Sikura in the neutral zone.
Tyler hauled in the bro-pass coming toward the left circle. Sikura the Elder let fly with an attempt that rebounded off the pads of Wolves goalie Garret Sparks. The rebound glanced off of Chicago defenseman Brayden Pachal and slid past Sparks for a 1-0 IceHogs advantage.
Less than three minutes later, Pachal found Lucas Elvenes knocking at the backdoor of the Rockford cage. Elvenes punched the puck home past Hogs goalie Matt Tomkins for his third of the season at 15:03.
The score remained tied until 4:50 into the third. Philip Holm got the play started in his own zone, setting up Reese Johnson with a clearing pass. Johnson hustled into Wolves territory before dropping a pass to Aleksi Saarela. Holm played the role of trailer to perfection, taking Saarela’s pass at the left circle and slinging it past Sparks to put Rockford up 2-1.
Late in the game, the Hogs found themselves down a man after Chad Krys sent a clearing attempt into the stands. Alexandre Fortin picked off a pass and found himself with a breakaway chance. Unfortunately, Fortin was unable to finish the opportunity.
Curtis McKenzie came back the other way and tied the game for the Wolves a few seconds later. McKenzie’s shot glanced off of Dennis Gilbert, who was prone on the ice to close off passing lanes, and slid though the wickets of Tomkins to even the score at two goals with 3:56 remaining. Regulation ended without a deciding goal.
It took most of Gus Macker Time, but the IceHogs prevailed with Tyler Sikura’s second goal of the evening. Sikura forced a Nicolas Roy turnover in the Rockford zone; Joni Tuulola gathered the loose puck and sprung Sikura for the breakaway. The Elder slammed the door on Chicago with a stick-side wrister past Sparks with 12 seconds left.
John Quenneville took a big hit in front of the Rockford bench in the third period. He went to the locker room favoring his left side and did not return.
Lines (Starters in italics)
Matthew Highmore (A)-Tyler Sikura (A)-Dylan Sikura
Anton Wedin-Jacob Nilsson-Brandon Hagel
John Quenneville-MacKenzie Entwistle-Alexantre Fortin
Nick Moutrey-Reese Johnson-Aleksi Saarela
Joni Tuulola-Dennis Gilbert
Chad Krys-Lucas Carlsson
Philip Holm-Nicolas Beaudin
Power Play (0-3)
Highmore-Quenneville-D. Sikura-T. Sikura-Carlsson
Penalty Kill (Wolves were 1-3)
Forwards–Highmore, T. Sikura, Wedin, Nilsson, Quenneville, Fortin, Moutrey
Defense-Gilbert, Tuulola, Krys, Holm
Rockford will be on the road this upcoming weekend, traveling to Cleveland for two games with the Monsters. I’ll preview that match-up Friday.
Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for news and notes on the IceHogs all season long.