Lack of offense plagued the Rockford IceHogs a season ago. This year’s crop of prospects fell victim to a similar fate when they lost their 2019-20 season debut Friday night in Iowa 3-2. The IceHogs did lead twice in this game before the Wild scored three times in the final 20 minutes.
One game does not a season make, mind you. There were signs that the piglets could improve upon last year’s paltry offensive numbers. However, we’ll have to wait for this weekend’s home stand at the BMO Harris Bank Center for signs of life.
Rockford coach Derek King was optimistic about his team’s performance. Despite the result, he praised a strong performance by goalie Kevin Lankinen and a strong compete level by his young squad.
“I think we’ve got lots to learn,” King said to Hogs broadcaster Joseph Zakrzewski following the contest. “We’ve got some work to do.”
It can hardly be considered a surprise to hear that the Hogs were particularly sharp in their curtain-jerker. There was a definite feeling-out period in the first. Neither team seemed to have a lot of rhythm and the action was back and forth. Iowa and Rockford went to the first intermission barren of goals.
The first goal of the season came early in the middle frame on the penalty kill, with Nicolas Beaudin sitting two minutes for slashing. The play got started with Chad Krys digging a puck away from Iowa’s Nico Sturm, then sending a clearing pass out to MacKenzie Entwistle.
The rookie was held coming across the Wild blueline by Louis Belpedio; seconds after the delayed call, Entwistle slid the puck on net. Kappo Kahkonen got his left pad on the shot, but Matthew Highmore was at the right post to knock in the loose rubber at 3:28 of the second period.
The Wild tied the game 24 seconds into the third when Gabriel Dumont backhanded a shot off of Lankinen’s pad. The IceHogs response was swift. Phillip Kurashev dished to Dylan Sikura from the left halfboards. The subsequent laser from the slot beat Kahkonen for a 2-1 Rockford advantage at the 1:20 mark.
Back came Iowa with a Mayhew tally at 2:30 of the third. The goal came right off of a faceoff win in the Hogs zone, with Mayhew collecting the rebound of Delpedio’s blast from the point.
The score remained even until the final minute of action. With Jacob Nilsson in the box for a faceoff infraction, Sturm sent a shot toward the Rockford crease. The puck glanced off the elbow of J.T. Brown and tumbled past Lankinen for the game-winner with 15 seconds left.
Lankinen turned away a lot of Iowa scoring chances in the last 40 minutes. He made several outstanding plays, most notably on a puck that caromed off the shin pad of rookie defenseman Nicolas Beaudin and was inches away from crossing the goal line.
At the other end, Kahkonen was good, though Rockford didn’t keep him as busy as they needed to. The passing was not up to snuff. Real legit scoring opportunities were hard to come by. The power play yielded five shots in four chances. Several potential open looks were negated by off target passing.
“The biggest thing, and we brought it up earlier,” King pointed out, “was just managing the puck, not forcing plays.”
Here’s a look at King’s opening night lines. The starters are in italics.
Matthew Highmore (A)-Tyler Sikura (A)-MacKenzie Entwistle
Kris Versteeg (C)-Jacob Nilsson-Brandon Hagel
Aleksi Saarela-Phillipp Kurashev-Dylan Sikura
Mikeal Hakkarainen-Reese Johnson-Alexandre Fortin
Lucas Carlsson-Joni Tuulola
Philip Holm-Adam Boqvist
Chad Krys-Nicolas Beaudin
Power Play (0-4)
Penalty Kill (Iowa was 1-5)
Forwards: T. Sikura-Fortin-Highmore-Entwistle-Nilsson-Hagel
Rookie Mikael Hakkarainen left Friday’s game in the second period and did not return.
On Saturday, Chicago re-assigned defenseman Dennis Gilbert to the IceHogs, along with forward John Quenneville.
A Musing Or Two For You
One line that was dripping with scoring potential was the Saarela-Kurashev-Sikura combo, who delivered the second Rockford goal. Together, that line generated nine of the Hogs 26 shots in the contest. Both Saarela and Sikura are big-time scorers at the AHL level and should give Kurashev lots of options with distributing the puck.
Saarela, Adam Boqvist and Kris Versteeg paced Rockford with four shots apiece. Despite the last-second deflection, the penalty kill was pretty effective.
Tyler Sikura was sporting a new number after wearing #28 the last two seasons. Sikura the Elder requested #16 when it became available this season. Saarela was clad in the #28 sweater.
Versteeg is sporting the #10 he wore back in his first stint with Rockford in 2007-08. Of course, he now has a “C” on the front of his current sweater.
Former Hogs forward Luke Johnson was not in action against his old team due to an injury suffered last week at practice.
Rockford has a week of practice to prepare for Grand Rapids. The Griffins, who pounded the Chicago Wolves 8-5 Saturday night, come a-calling this Saturday at the BMO. I’ll be back Friday to preview that match up. Follow me on twitter @JonFromi for more thoughts on the Hogs this week.