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.
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.