The Rockford IceHogs concluded the regular season this past weekend. Their season, however, has not drawn to a close just yet.
Rockford is preparing for its first-round Calder Cup Playoffs series with the Chicago Wolves, who claimed the top spot in the Central Division. This was, in part, to the fact that Chicago defeated the Hogs twice this weekend to lock in the playoff match-ups.
Rockford clinched last Tuesday with a 5-3 win in Iowa. Heading into the final weekend of regular-season action, the IceHogs actually had a shot at a division banner if everything fell into place.
Friday night, Rockford came out in physical fashion at the BMO. As a result, the Hogs found themselves down 5-1 in the third period. They rallied to get the score to 5-4, but the Wolves added an empty-netter and locked up the division title with a 6-4 victory.
Saturday night, Chicago rallied to win at Allstate Arena. Rockford led 4-3 after two periods, but the Wolves got a pair of goals midway through the third to best the IceHogs 5-4. This, despite Chicago resting several regulars while Rockford iced a veteran-heavy lineup.
The way things shake out is this: the piglets get an I-90 series with a team that it matches up with very well on paper. The Wolves are division champs, yet this is a very winnable series for Rockford.
This week, I am going to focus on the pending opening to this first-round series. Things get underway Saturday night in Rosemont, followed by a Sunday matinee at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Here’s a preview of what should be quite the entertaining best-of-five tilt.
With two teams within driving distance squaring off (a bus issue required the Wolves to drive themselves to Rockford Friday), each game will alternate between Chicago and Rockford. After the home-and-home that comprises Games One and Two, the action returns to the Allstate Arena Thursday for Game Three. If necessary, Game Four is in Rockford on Sunday, April 29. Game Five would be in Chicago the next day.
There is a decent chance of this series going the distance. The two teams split the 12 games in the season series (with Chicago retaining the Illinois Lottery Cup, for those who care). The Wolves and IceHogs each went 4-2 in their respective barns.
Eight of the 12 games had a one-goal margin of victory; three of those games were decided in overtime or a shootout (Rockford won all of those contests). These are two teams who are very familiar with each other. Let’s you and me get more familiar with the Wolves, as well as our IceHogs.
How They Got Here
Chicago had a stunningly poor start to the 2017-18 season. After dropping a 3-2 overtime loss to the Hogs December 22, the Wolves were 12-12-5-1. From that point on, Chicago went 29-10-2-4 to race up the standings. They caught a Manitoba squad that had a 14-point lead in the standings a couple of months ago and put together a 13-game home winning streak while doing so.
Rockford has earned it’s ticket for the playoffs with a strong finish after struggling in the first two months of 2018. The Hogs went 8-10-2-2 from the beginning of the calendar year to February 23. The improvement of goalie Collin Delia and some veteran reinforcements around the trade deadline helped turn the tide. Rockford is a different club than the one that began the season back in October.
The Wolves have the sixth-highest scoring offense in the AHL this season with a 3.24 goals per game average. Rest assured, they can fill the net.
Back in the second round of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs, the IceHogs were beaten in five games by the Grand Rapids Griffins. More specifically, they were beaten by Teemu Pulkkinen, who notched seven goals and a couple of assists in the series.
Pulkkinen (29 G, 36 A this season) has not been able to get a permanent NHL foothold in Detroit, Minnesota or Las Vegas. However, the 26-year-old Finnish forward has been a nightmarish presence for fans of the IceHogs.
In 32 career regular season games vs Rockford, Pulkkinen has 33 points (21 G, 11 A). In the 12 games against the Hogs this season, Pulkkinen has nine goals and 14 points. He has two-goal performances in each of his last three games against Rockford.
In addition to stopping Pulkkinen, the IceHogs will also have to contend with another offensive juggernaut that hasn’t found a home in the NHL. That would be former Rockford center Brandon Pirri, who is coming off a season in which he tied Pulkkinen for the Wolves goal-scoring title. Pirri had 29 lamp-lighters despite playing in just 57 games for Chicago.
The Wolves are tough up the middle after Pirri. T.J. Tynan had a 60-point season (15 G, 45 A). Wade Megan didn’t match his 33-goal outburst of a season ago, but still can put points on the scoreboard. Stefan Matteau brings 27 points (15 G, 12 A) and a lot of nasty to the ice.
On the outside, Chicago is also talented in addition to Pulkkinen. The Wolves can boast 24-goal scorer Paul Thompson, Beau Bennett (12 G, 45 A) and Tomas Hyka (15 G, 33 A) Long-time AHL veteran Brett Sterling has nine points (4 G, 5 A) in nine games against Rockford this season.
The IceHogs lack a scorer of Pirri and Pulkkinen’s caliber up front. Rockford’s top four goal scorers are rookies. Matthew Highmore (24 G, 19 A) was the team’s rookie of the year. Tyler Sikura (23 G, 16 A) was the Hogs MVP in his first full AHL campaign.
Both players get to the net; Sikura, in particular, made a steady living in the rebound and redirect department. Anthony Louis (who led the Hogs with 44 points) and William Pelletier both had 14 goals for Rockford in their freshmen seasons.
The veteran scoring can’t rival Chicago, but it was instrumental in the late season surge. Chris DiDomenico put up 28 points (8 G, 15 A) in 22 games in the last two months of the season. Lance Bouma added seven goals and seven helpers in 20 games.
Coming down to Rockford in the last week of the season was Andreas Martinsen, who was a big contributor for the bulk of the Hogs season (12 G, 16 A). along with forwards David Kampf, John Hayden. If Hogs coach Jeremy Colliton can work them into the current team chemistry, they could be a big X-factor in this series.
The Wolves are also sixth-best in the league on the other side of the rink, giving up 2.73 goals per game.
Jason Garrison has ample NHL experience and a heavy shot from the point. He has 28 points (8 G, 20 A) on the season in 58 games for Chicago. Rookie Jake Bischoff (7 G, 16 A) leads the Wolves with a plus-23 skater rating.
Phillip Holm was acquired in February. He hasn’t put up the numbers for the Wolves like he had in Utica the first four months of the season. Nonetheless, he put up the game-tying goal against Rockford on Saturday night. Another recent addition, Zac Leslie, has five goals and 17 assists for the Wolves in 27 games.
The IceHogs have been at their best when they can push the pace of the game. It is the blueline that provides the jump to Rockford’s game.
Again, influx of veteran players has helped in this area, specifically Cody Franson and Adam Clendening. Both players had added offensive punch to the back end and, along with DiDomenico, completely revamped the power play.
With the additions of Franson and Clendening, Rockford sports a formidable group on defense. Carl Dahlstrom (3 G, 25 A) and Viktor Svedberg (6 G, 18 A) have both had solid seasons. Darren Raddysh and Gustav Forsling will likely form the third pairing.
Going into the playoffs, it looks like rookie Oscar Dansk will be backed up by Max Lagace. Dansk was the AHL’s Goalie of the Month back in March. He has a 2.47 GAA and a .917 save percentage in 20 games with the Wolves, most coming in the last two-and-a-half months.
It will be Delia and Jeff Glass in net for the IceHogs. Glass is one of the most respected voices in the locker room and Delia has been the Hogs best goalie over the last two months. Expect both to see action in this series.
On paper, the Wolves have a big advantage here, as Rockford struggled on both the power play and penalty kill units this season. I believe that going into this series, however, that the teams are more even that the regular season totals would suggest.
First off, the Hogs power play has been very good the last month. Second, Rockford doesn’t take a lot of dumb penalties. If they wind up giving Chicago a lot of chances, players like Pulkkinen will make them pay dearly.
This weekend, Rockford was uncharacteristically physical with the Wolves and would up in the box more than I’d like to see. As a result, Chicago had two power play goals both Friday and Saturday.
Bottom Line…How Does This Series Go?
If Rockford tries to get in a shoving match with the Wolves, as was the case at the BMO Friday night, I don’t think things auger well. I can’t imagine that Hogs coach Jeremy Colliton is going to try and out-muscle Chicago in this series, though.
This figures to be a more evenly-matched affair than the other Central pairing; I would imagine that Grand Rapids, who wound up second in the standings, will be able to handle a slumping Manitoba club in the first round.
The one-four match-up has the elements of a classic. Two interstate rivals, both of which are playing well heading into the postseason. Either team is capable of moving on to the next round. Of course, there can be only one, as they say.
I’ll play the role of homer…piglets in five.
Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for thoughts on what should be a must-watch first-round series between the Hogs and Chicago.