Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs are about to begin a three-game weekend with big-time playoff implications. Chicago’s AHL affiliate kicks things off with a home-and-home with Grand Rapids before paying a visit to Rosemont and the Chicago Wolves.

Here’s a quick look at what’s waiting for the IceHogs this weekend.

Both the Griffins and Wolves are ahead of Rockford in the Central Division standings. The Hogs have split the season series with Grand Rapids. Their rivals from Michigan have taken ten points out of the first eight games between the teams, compared to Rockford’s eight.

Both teams have won twice on the road in the season series, though in recent years the trend has favored the home team in the rivalry. Over the last five seasons, Rockford is 15-8 against the Griffins at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Grand Rapids owns a 15-4-2-2 mark against the Hogs at Van Andel Arena.

Things get started in Rockford Friday night. A split just isn’t going to be good enough with the Griffins. The piglets need points in regulation, especially against a team battling with them for the postseason.

Back on February 18, Grand Rapids beat the Hogs 2-1 in Rockford. Three of this season’s tilts have been decided by that score. The next two games should also be hotly contested.

Veteran Chris Terry is pacing the Griffins in scoring, with 20 goals and 30 assists on the season. Grand Rapids also gets offense from familiar faces like Matthew Ford (10 G, 16 A) and Matt Puempel (15 G, 22 A). Goalies Calvin Pickard and Pat Nagle have been excellent against Rockford, giving up just seven goals in five games between them.

Rockford enters the weekend with John Quenneville (13 G, 9 A) still out with a strained neck. Joseph Cramarossa’s phyiscal game would be a welcome addition to the Hogs lineup. However, he also may not be ready to play this weekend.

The big injury news comes with Rockford’s announcement Thursday that goalie Kevin Lankinen is finished for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Things may not have ended like Lankinen had hoped this year, but the net is still in the capable hands of Collin Delia and Matt Tomkins.

Could Delia play in three straight games this weekend? He’s been the primary man in goal since Lankinen left a February 13 game after the first period. It would probably make sense to use Tomkins on Saturday in Grand Rapids and give the net to Delia Friday and Sunday, when Rockford visits the Wolves.

Chicago has lost four straight, including Thursday’s 4-2 decision to Tucson. The Roadrunners are at Allstate Arena Saturday night before Rockford comes a calling on Sunday.

The Wolves have been a little undermanned of late. They did, however, knock off the Hogs 5-1 in Rosemont on February 23 and made the piglets look pretty bad in doing so. Rockford is 6-2 against Chicago this season. They can wrap up the vaunted Illinois Lottery Cup for the first time in three years with a win in any of the last four meetings with the Wolves.

What’s really important, of course, is overtaking Chicago in the standings. That means getting the job done Sunday afternoon.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for my thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the season.

Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs have hit the skids over the holidays. Call-ups and injuries have left the piglets a shell of the team that played so well back just a few weeks ago.

From November 2 to December 20, Rockford ran off a 14-5-0-1 stretch that had them in second place in the Central Division. Since then, the IceHogs have dropped six in a row. This is a depleted squad, to say the least.

As the month of December progressed, several key Hogs were recalled to the Blackhawks. Forwards Dylan Sikura, Matthew Highmore and John Quenneville, along with defensemen Dennis Gilbert and Adam Boqvist were big pieces of Rockford’s success.

Alexandre Fortin, Phillipp Kurashev and Anton Wedin are out of the lineup with injuries-and may be out for a while. Defenseman Philip Holm, the most solid performer on the blueline this season, is returning to Europe after requesting to be let out of his NHL contract.

The above circumstances have left the Hogs very thin, quite green…and the losers of six straight.

Rockford brought up AHL contracts Dylan McLaughlin and Matthew Thompson from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel on January 1. They also signed the Fuel’s leading scorer, Spencer Watson, to a PTO on Sunday after Thomson was injured in Friday’s game in Iowa.

Hogs coach Derek King used every healthy player at his disposal against the Chicago Wolves Sunday, employing AHL defenseman Ben Youds as a forward to fill out his lineup card. In the second period of that game, Mikael Hakkarainen, who missed most of the first three months of the season after an opening night injury, left the game. When it rains, it pours.

 

Lankinen Lone All-Star

Hogs goalie Kevin Lankinen was named as Rockford’s only representative in the AHL’s All-Star Classic, to be held in Ontario, California on January 26 and 27.

Lankinen got the news in the midst of a rough patch of play. In his last three starts, Lankinen has surrendered 15 goals. His line for the season so far through 15 appearances: a 7-7-1 record, a 3.17 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.

 

Recaps

Friday, January 3-Iowa 5, Rockford 1

The IceHogs dug themselves a three-goal hole in the first period and never recovered, dropping their fifth-straight contest.

The Wild quickly took command of the game, scoring on a pair of power play opportunities. Gerald Mayhew beat Hogs goalie Kevin Lankinen from the slot 1:29 into the first period. Mayhew stuck in a rebound of a Kyle Rau attempt at the 8:08 mark for a 2-0 Iowa advantage.

Late in the first, Mayhew sent a long shot toward Lankinen. It was redirected by Nico Sturm, creating a 3-0 deficit heading into the first intermission.

Sturm got around the defense early in the second period and slipped a shot under Lankinen’s pads, making it 4-0 at the 2:20 mark. Luke Johnson extended the Wild lead to 5-0 on a 5-on-3 power play goal 52 seconds into the third period.

Rockford got on the scoreboard midway through the final frame. Dylan McLaughlin picked up his first AHL goal, one-timing an offering from Joseph Cramarossa. The power play goal came at the 9:01 mark.

Forward Matthew Thompson left the game midway through the third period and did not return to action. Iowa was three for six on the power play, while the IceHogs converted just one of their six chances.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Mikael Hakkarainen-Reese Johnson-Nick Moutrey

Joseph Cramarossa-Tyler Sikura (C)-Dylan McLaughlin

Brandon Hagel-Jacob Nilsson (A)-MacKenzie Entwistle

Tim Soderlund-Matthew Thompson-Nathan Noel

Philip Holm-Lucas Carlsson

Ian McCoshen (A)-Joni Tuulola

Nicolas Beaudin-Dmitri Osipov

Kevin Lankinen

Collin Delia

 

Sunday, January 5-Chicago 3, Rockford 2

The Wolves picked up their first win of the season against the Hogs in the Illinois Lottery Cup series.

Rockford drew first cord, taking a 1-0 first period lead on a second effort goal by Jacob Nilsson. Nilsson’s initial shot was thwarted by Chicago goalie Oscar Dansk. However, Nilsson recovered the rebound and sent a shot off the back of Dansk and into the Wolves net at the 6:36 mark.

Chicago dominated the second period, taking a 2-1 advantage on goals by Dylan Coghlan and Valentin Zykov. The Wolves lead stretched to 3-1 at 1:56 of the third when Tye McGinn beat the glove of Hogs goalie Collin Delia.

The IceHogs kept plugging away, pressuring Dansk on the way to 15 shots in the final frame. Dylan McLaughlin got a slap shot past Dansk 12:18 into the third. Despite several good looks at the Chicago net, Rockford was unable to complete the comeback.

Mikael Hakkarainen left the game in the second period and did not return to action.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Joseph Cramarossa-Tyler Sikura (C)-Dylan McLaughlin

Brandon Hagel-Jacob Nilsson (A)-MacKenzie Entwistle

Nick Moutrey-Reese Johnson-Spencer Watson

Mikael Hakkarainen-Nathan Noel-Ben Youds

Joni Tuulola-Lucas Carlsson

Ian McCoshen-Dmitri Osipov

Nicolas Beaudin-Chad Krys

Collin Delia

Matt Tomkins

 

Next

Things don’t get easier for the IceHogs, who host Manitoba on Wednesday night before heading to Milwaukee for a pair of games with the division-leading Admirals on Friday and Saturday.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for news, updates and thoughts on the IceHogs all season long.

 

Hockey

Last week, I laid out the lack of success of the Blackhawks organization in developing defensive talent. Stan Bowman’s draft record is incredibly poor in this regard. However, there are other ways to replenish a blueline.

This week, we’ll recap Bowman’s track record in obtaining defensive prospects via trade or free agency. My criteria is going to be players that Chicago brought in to develop into solid pieces on defense, as opposed to veterans acquisitions.

The player at the top of this list would have to be Nick Leddy, who was obtained with Kim Johnsson for Cam Barker in February of 2010. It’s a stretch to say that Leddy developed in Rockford, but he did play 22 games for the Hogs in 2010-11 and was with the team during the NHL strike in 2012-13 before helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

Leddy is currently in his tenth season. He’s a two-time All-Star and has avoided injuries in his NHL career. Chicago was able to hold on to Leddy for all of four seasons before having to move him to the New York Islanders. However, Stan Bowman was able to wrest the next defensive gem from the Isles. Or so it was thought.

Bowman sent Leddy and Kent Simpson to New York in exchange for goalie prospect Anders Nilsson, AHL juggernaut T.J. Brennan…and defensive prospect Ville Pokka.

Nilsson was traded the following summer; Brennan spent five months piling up offense in Rockford before he was traded to Toronto. Pokka was the piece that the Blackhawks hoped to polish into a top-four defender.

They didn’t.

Pokka put up solid numbers with the IceHogs for three and a half seasons but never played a game for Chicago. Bowman’s return for Pokka in February of 2018: three months of Chris DiDomenico for the IceHogs run to the Western Conference Final. Pokka is now skating in the KHL.

Another young defenseman Bowman traded for was Gustav Forsling, who the Hawks picked up from Vancouver. Having given up on Adam Clendening as a long-term solution on defense, Bowman had high hopes for Forsling, who skated for parts of three seasons in Rockford.

Unfortunately, that time was mostly spent following unimpressive stints in Chicago.

Forsling was sent to the Hogs mid-season in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. He was rather pedestrian in his time in Rockford, was moved this past summer in a trade with Carolina and has spent this season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers.

Bowman has also attempted to bring in defense via signing free agents and developing them in Rockford. This has produced a couple of players who have spent time in the NHL, Erik Gustafsson being perhaps the most prominent.

Gustafsson skated 120 games with the IceHogs, including all of the 2016-17 campaign. Like his tenure with the Hawks, Gustafsson was a one-way player who struggled mightily in his own end. However, he does have nearly 200 games of NHL experience at this point.

Chicago has had limited success with undrafted free agents. Ryan Stanton appeared in a game for the Hawks in 2013 and played two full NHL seasons with Vancouver. Viktor Svedberg, who spent five seasons in Rockford, played in 27 games for Chicago in 2015-16. You would have to credit Svedberg and Stanton’s time with the IceHogs for the two at least reaching the NHL.

Otherwise, the cupboard has been bare. Gustafsson is the only one of these players currently contributing to the Blackhawks defense. Bowman has not been able to replace veteran pieces on his roster effectively. It certainly is a big reason the organization is scuffling right now.

 

Anyway, Back To The IceHogs…

…who are mired in a four-game losing steak as they ready for this weekend’s action. Rockford (17-14-0-1) is in fourth place in the AHL’s Central Division. They have upcoming games with the two teams directly above them in the standings.

Friday night, the piglets are in Iowa. The Wild have won two of the three previous meetings in the season series, including a 6-2 pasting of Rockford last Friday. Iowa comes in the winners of four of its last five games.

Sunday, Rockford is back at the BMO Harris Bank Center for another tilt with the Chicago Wolves. The Hogs have won all five games against their closest rival in the vaunted Illinois Lottery Cup. It’s been over a month since Rockford saw the Wolves; the IceHogs defeated Chicago 4-2 back on November 29.

Roster Moves

Matt Tomkins returned to the IceHogs on Wednesday following his stint with Team Canada, who won the Spengler Cup. Tomkins won in his only appearance in the tournament, a 5-1 victory over HC Davos.

Rockford also recalled forwards Matthew Thompson and Dylan McLaughlin from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel Wednesday.

 

Recap

Tuesday, December 31-Manitoba 4, Rockford 3

The Hogs dropped a fourth-straight contest, buried by four Moose tallies in the opening 7:14 of the second period.

After neither team drew cord in the first twenty minutes, Manitoba quickly converted on two power plays in the middle frame. C.J. Suess and Kristian Vesalainen scored fifty seconds apart, at 2:58 and 3:48, respectively.

Emilie Poirier and Cole Maier struck in quick succession in the seventh and eighth minutes, leading to a goalie change for the IceHogs. Kevin Lankinen gave way to Collin Delia, who faced 20 shots the rest of the way but held firm, allowing Rockford to slowly get back into shouting distance.

Brandon Hagel got the Hogs on the board with a strong move into the Manitoba zone following a pass from Chad Krys. Hagel powered around the net and completed the wraparound successfully to make it 4-1 Moose 12:58 into the second.

Nicolas Beaudin’s ttempt from the high slot late in the period caromed high in the air, glancing off of Moose goalie Mikail Berdin and into the cage at the 18:05 mark.

Down 4-2 to begin the third period, the IceHogs displayed the tenacity that has been their trademark this season. Anton Wedin redirected a long pass from Joseph Cramarossa, who had swiped the puck back in the defensive zone seconds earlier. Wedin’s seventh of the season closed the gap to 4-3 at 9:02 of the third. That was as close as Rockford could get, however.

I will hopefully be sending out live tweets @JonFromi during the Wolves game tonight. Follow me for game updates along with my thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the season.