Hockey

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.

 

Those Flyin’ Piglets

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.

 

A Look At The Wild

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.

 

What’s The Bottom Line?

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.

 

Series Schedule

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.

 

Hockey

As the Rockford IceHogs prepare to start the process of locking down a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs, it’s probably a good time to focus on the way the roster was reshaped over the past week. In case you missed it, the Blackhawks made a couple of trades.

This flurry of transactions was a two-prong effort between Chicago and Rockford. As was the case around the league, moves were made involving what amounted to swaps of AHL and NHL contracts. The get-around was using “future considerations”. This fleshed out what seemed to be one-sided trades at the NHL level with reciprocal AHL deals that got the players where everyone wanted them to go.

If you want to sort out all the moves, be my guest. I’m more concerned with the pieces that departed and arrived in Rockford when the trade deadline occurred. Here’s how things currently stand.

Out

NHL Contracts

G Dylan Wells-to Dallas

D Cooper Zech-to Rangers

AHL Contracts

D Adam Clendening-to Hartford

F Carson Gicewicz-to Rochester

In

NHL Contracts

D Andrew Welinski-from Rangers

F Pavel Gogolev-from Toronto

F Maxim Golod-from Anaheim (Hawks assigned Golod to the Indy Fuel)

G Anton Khudobin-from Dallas

AHL Contracts

F Rocco Grimaldi-from San Diego

F Logan Nijhoff-from San Diego (Hogs assigned Nijhoff to the Indy Fuel)

F Zach Jordan-from Hartford (Hogs assigned Jordan to the Indy Fuel)

F Colin Bilek-from Mantitoba (Hogs assigned Bilek to the Indy Fuel)

 

In Addition…

The Blackhawks assigned David Gust, Brett Seney, Issak Phillips, Lukas Reichel, and Joey Anderson (newly acquired from Toronto) to the IceHogs. Reichel and Anderson were paper moves that were pulled back to Chicago following the trade deadline, but both players are eligible to participate in the postseason for Rockford.

So…how did the Hogs make out?

Surprisingly well. Grimaldi is the type of player BMO fans should salivate over; a veteran AHL sniper who has produced in AHL stops in San Antonio, Portland, and Milwaukee. In San Diego this season, the 30-year-old Grimaldi had 27 goals and 29 helpers in 54 games.

Gogolev was responsible for Rockford’s only regulation goal in a 2-1 shootout win in Laval Saturday night, tipping in a shot by Welinski (4 G, 12 A in 40 games with Hartford).

Khudobin sure would have come in handy earlier this season. There was a need for a veteran goalie who could have played the role Arvid Soderblom was cast in due to injuries. With Soderblom now set to receive the bulk of the starts down the stretch and Jaxson Stauber playing well in a Hogs loss in Belleville Friday, the 36-year-old veteran still provides experienced insurance for Rockford.

As a result of the bevy of moves, the Hogs found themselves a little undermanned this past week. Rockford battled but lost 5-3 in Toronto on Wednesday and 4-1 Belleville on Friday before defeating the Rocket Saturday.

Seney and forward D.J. Busdeker left Friday’s contest with injuries. Busdeker returned for the third period. The following night, both players sat out, forcing the Hogs to play two defensemen, Nolan Valleau and Koletrane Wilson, at forward.

I would imaging that Gust, who was with his expecting wife, and Grimaldi will be in the lineup for Rockford this coming weekend, when the IceHogs finish their five-game road trip in Grand Rapids Friday and in Rosemont on Saturday.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for thoughts on the IceHogs as they look to maintain and improve upon their playoff position.

 

 

Hockey

vs

Game Times: 7:30 PM
TV/Radio: NBCSN (3/9), SportsNet (3/9), NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Dammit Pantera, This Beer Is Warm: Defending Big D

 

As hard as it is to believe, this series in Dallas will mark the halfway point of this abbreviated campaign for the Hawks, as it’s both zipped right by and felt interminable somehow simultaneously. They’ll face a Stars team that itself is adrift and had better get things straightened out in a hurry given the onslaught of makeup games they now face after both covid and Texan disasters in the past two months.

Hockey

at

Game Times: 2:00PM (2/7), 7:30PM (2/9)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, ESPN+ (2/7), WGN-AM 720
Sky Point Riley Gale: Defending Big D

This past fall or summer or whatever (time has no meaning anymore), the Stars nearly set the hockey world back 20 years by boring-ing their way to the Cup Final only to be fodder for the eventual and inevitable champion Lightning, with interim coach and NHL lifer Rick Bowness largely keeping Jim Montgomery’s desolate and exhausting defensive system in place which clearly belied Montgomery’s personal life. But that run earned Bowness a Magic Training Camp of his own, and after being the first of now countless covid breakouts across the league, the Stars have somehow turned into a pinball machine of scoring.

Hockey

This was a well-played game. Yeah, that’s right, I said they were good! Of course there were a few defensive breakdowns and they gave up a total of 16 high-danger chances, but they stayed right around 50 CF% as a team, they actually led in shots (38-32), and also gave up way fewer than 40 shots on the night. That alone is notable. Plus, only three of those high-danger chances came in the third so essentially they not only held a lead but extended it, took advantage of their one power play opportunity, and tightened up defensively when needed. Oh, and their goaltender was pretty OK too I guess. To the bullets:

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

–The story tonight again was Corey Crawford, and really the goaltending in general. But let’s be honest, Crow was amazing, particularly during some scrums in the second period, such as during the PK on Shaw’s dumbass penalty (how many more times are we going to say that? Wait, I don’t want to know). The Hawks gave up 14 shots in the second, their worst period in that measure, and yes Calvin de Haan deserves credit for saving a goal but Crawford was basically the first and second star tonight (at least, to me his is). It seems safe to say at this point that balancing the workload with Robin Lehner is really working for Crawford, and it makes sense as he’s getting older and has more time to recover from shit like the two shots he saved with his facemask tonight. I’m not suggesting he’s concussed every time a puck hits him above the shoulders, but it’s just punishing in general to get hit with shit at high speeds, and the extra time to rest between games certainly doesn’t seem to be breaking his rhythm or his comfort in the crease. He’s the hero we need but don’t deserve.

Anton Khudobin was really fucking good too, though, and the Hawks should be damn proud that they got two by him. The first by Brandon Saad was squeezed through a closing five hole like the Millennium Falcon escaping closing monster jaws. The second was Patrick Kane‘s that keeps his scoring streak going, and it was on their lone power play. That goal came in the third and basically sealed the game, and it was pretty classic where Kane held the pass as everyone in the UC—and me leaping off my couch—screamed for him to shoot but he held on just long enough to get Khudobin out of position. Well, really Khudobin was already flopping a bit but Kane’s patience faked him out just enough. It was a thing of beauty.

–And our Large Irish Son capped it off with the empty netter, which always seems like something we can never manage.

–One downside was that Dylan Strome was scratched for concussion protocol, but Kirby Dach did a fine job filling in on the second line. Granted, that line was still shitty defensively (35.7 CF% and 9 SA) but Dach played well and given Coach Gemstone’s predisposition to be randomly shitty to Strome, there’s a chance Dach plays himself right into Strome’s job. I don’t want that and I still say that DeBrincat-Strome-Kane is a no-brainer while Dach should play with Kampf and Kubalik, but I’m also saying don’t be surprised if the new kid supplants Strome, who ends up getting traded in a typical lack of foresight.

–Speaking of forward lines, the fourth line of Smith-Carpenter-Highmore was excellent. They had a 77.8 CF% at evens and a total of 5 shots between them. Early on in the first when the Hawks were getting outplayed, Zack Smith even had a breakaway that of course he couldn’t finish on because he’s Zack Smith, but still you gotta appreciate the effort. They were solid throughout and exactly what you want out of a fourth line.

–And, let’s just note for the record that the Hawks killed both penalties they gave up, and took advantage of the one power play they had. It was a little questionable with Erik Gustafsson as the only defenseman out there on the power play but as we saw, it ended up not being a problem. It was a relief to see them 1) not give up a shitload of penalties and 2) not fall to pieces when they gave up the two penalties that they did. We need special teams to keep this up.

–I also have to say, given everything that’s going on with the NHL right now with asshole coaches, endemic racism and bullying, and hopefully the start of a general reckoning with deep-seated cultural problems in this sport, I was relieved to not be listening to Pat and Eddie tonight. I pictured myself wincing every time Foley opened his mouth, worried about what ass-backward thing he would say if any of the recent news came up. And for the record, AJ Mleczko was knowledgeable, confident and had a nice TV voice—she was a pleasure to listen to and way less annoying of a between-the-glass person than that jamoke the local broadcast has been putting out there. She handled color commentary and the bench interviews and was excellent the whole time. Can we please try having more women in these roles?

The Stars’ winning streak and the Hawks’ losing streak are both over, good riddance. It’s not getting any easier with two against Colorado after the turkey coma, but if they can play like this it may just stay interesting. Onward and upward.

Line of the night: “He can scoot!” –John Forslund describing Kirby Dach, who is probably the only guy you could say that about and not get your ass kicked (yet).

Beer de jour: Busted Prop Wheat, Crystal Lake Brewing

 

Everything Else

Don’t get me wrong, it’s more fun to watch the Hawks win than to watch them lose, but while these last two games may be some point of pride for the players, it’s in a way even more frustrating to see them beat better teams when it no longer matters. If they just got their ass kicked we could shrug and say yeah, this is where we’re at. Maybe it would help their draft position in some small way. But when they manage to do something like score five on a really hot goalie while only giving up one, it rubs salt in the wound remembering how they couldn’t do this in the key moments when it mattered. Fuck it all, let’s do the bullets:

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

– Tonight was really a showcase in not-giving-a-shit, in many different ways. But how could that be, you wonder? The Hawks scored five goals…how could they not give a shit? Well, when the first period ended neither team had shots in double-digits. Both teams were playing, shall we say, leisurely, and even the refs didn’t give a shit enough to call a penalty shot on a clear take-down of Gustafsson on a break-away. You would think the Stars would have wanted to make at least a half-assed effort, but with a couple notable exceptions like John Klingberg robbing Alex DeBrincat (legally) on yet another breakaway, they really couldn’t be bothered.

– But yes, the Hawks did score five goals, so there’s a feather in our cap. Kane has a career-high in points and now 44 goals, Kahun scored off a great play by Brandon Saad in the second when Saad made a great move at the blue line and drove to the net where Kahun picked up the rebound, hell even Slater Koekkoek got his very first goal. Dylan Sikura must be pissed. Chris Kunitz also scored in what is most likely his last game as an NHL player, or if not his absolute last, the last one in a home rink. I’ve been bored and mildly annoyed with the fuss they’ve made for him even though yes, I get it, it’s the right thing to do. But I will say it was rather touching how genuinely excited his teammates were when his weird, fluky bounce was deemed to have just barely crossed the goal line. So good for him, now Chris Kunitz please go away.

– Can we all just take a moment to reflect on the scoring capability that’s on this team and yet the fact that they’re missing the playoffs again? I know we’ve all beaten this dead horse—I know you’ve thought about it and we’ve all marveled at how shitty a defense can be, how inexplicable some personnel decisions have been…all of it. But god damn it, games like this throw into harsh relief the absurdity of such talent and career years by Kane and Toews being wasted.

– And just to make things worse, Corey Crawford sustained a groin injury and left the game in the second period. Yeah, he’s got plenty of time to recover and a muscular injury is definitely less worrisome than another head injury. But this guy doesn’t need any more shit breaking or going awry, even if he’s got six months to heal. He most likely pulled it when moving left to right on a brilliant save in the first, but you could tell he was struggling when he got back up. So that’s just one more kick in the collective ass for this season and one more roadblock for someone who doesn’t deserve the hand he’s been dealt with this team lately.

– Speaking of goalie problems, Anton Khudobin came into this game with a .926 SV% and somehow managed to barf up an .813. Part of this was undoubtedly his defense not giving a rat’s ass—case in point, the first goal when Dowling kinda sorta attempted to block a shot and the rest of the Stars literally skated the opposite way of Kane and the puck, making it easier than it already is for him. Also, there was some bad luck for the Stars like when the puck deflected off Reverend Lovejoy’s skate and right onto Dylan Strome‘s stick, who happened to be all alone in front of the crease and just held onto it long enough to get Khudobin moving the wrong way. So it wasn’t that Khudobin just fucked up royally, but he still should have had at least a couple of these.

So that’s the end of things on Madison St. this season. They didn’t go down like bitches in front of the fans for the last time, which I suppose is a nice gesture. But it grinds my gears one more time that only when there’s no pressure could they rise to the occasion and play a well-rounded game. Pullega will be here tomorrow night to bring it all home for you. Onward and upward indeed.

Photo credit: NHL.com

Everything Else

 vs 

Game Time: 11:30AM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Of The April Birds: Days of Y’Orr, Cup of Chowder

This morning’s national TV tilt means nothing to the Blackhawks, having wrapped up home ice in the Western Conference yesterday afternoon thanks to the Wild getting blanked in Nashville by the Preds. And in an ideal world, they should just be able to forfeit the remaining four games on the schedule and not even get into their cars to head to the rink from here on out, let alone get on a plane to head out west for the final three games on the road, only one of which will be against a team playing for anything in the Ducks. But that’s not allowed, and today’s opponent, the Bruins, still aren’t out of the woods yet as far as getting into the post-season, so brunch hockey is still going to take place on West Madison.