The Rockford IceHogs are in rarefied air this spring. The Flying Piglets of Winnebago County are riding a hot group of veterans, freshman goalie Collin Delia and a lethal power play into the Western Conference Final with the Texas Stars.
The Hogs are the winners of seven straight games in the postseason, sweeping both the Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose to reach the third round. This is the farthest a Rockford AHL squad has advanced in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Fans have flocked to the BMO Harris Bank Center to watch this exciting mix of youngsters and veterans who have put it together at the most opportune of times.
Rockford will begin the series in Cedar Park for Games 1 and 2 on Friday, May 18 and Sunday, May 20. The action returns to the BMO next Tuesday, Thursday and, if necessary, Friday.
Will that Game 5 be required, or will the IceHogs be able to dispense of their opponent as they did their Central Division adversaries? I’m holding off on the sweep talk, because the Stars present a formidable challenge.
The IceHogs are 3-1 in head-to-head action with Texas (who join the Central Division starting next season) in 2017-18. However, it’s best to look at the two April contests in Cedar Park that were split between the two teams.
Rockford took the April 6 contest in a shootout, winning 3-2 on the strength of two power-play goals and a fifth-round shootout winner from Viktor Svedberg. Two days later, the Stars put up a trio of goals in the third period, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Hogs 4-3.
Finishing second in the Pacific Division, Texas eliminated Ontario in four games before knocking off Tuscon in five. The Stars beat the Roadrunners in overtime Saturday night to win their division final.
Texas is a veteran-laden team that likes to push the pace of the game and has a red-hot goalie in net. In other words, the Stars are a lot like Rockford in make up heading into the Western Conference Final.
Since the play in net could well dictate which team moves on to the Calder Cup Final, we’ll start with a look in the respective cages to begin this look at the two teams.
Anchoring the Texas run and playing out of his mind of late is 35-year-old Mike McKenna. The Stars brought him in to be the starter this season after helping take Syracuse to the Calder Cup Final the previous spring. McKenna lost that job to Landon Bow with some spotty play in the regular season but has been stellar for Texas in the playoffs.
McKenna has a pair of shutouts in the postseason. He also relieved Bow in the second period of Game 3 of the Stars first-round series with Ontario and held the Reign scoreless for 68:19 as Texas prevailed 5-4 in double overtime.
The veteran of 13 AHL seasons (and 24 NHL games in that span) is sporting a 1.65 GAA and a .952 save percentage on nearly 35 shots per contest.
For Rockford, Delia has been equally impressive, with a 1.64 GAA and a .948 save percentage. He’s faced a couple of fewer shots per game (just under 32 shots), but he has been first star in four of the IceHogs seven playoff wins.
This Western Conference Final could very well wind up a case of which goalie is better on a given night. Delia has been as cool as a Rancho Cucamonga cucumber for the Hogs. The edge in experience obviously goes to McKenna, who has 54 AHL playoff games under his belt. What matters now is the games that loom ahead of these two net-minders.
Experience is all over the Texas lineup. The Stars top line, Travis Morin (10 G, 51 A), Justin Dowling (13 G, 28 A) and Curtis McKenzie (25 G, 23 A) are all holdovers from the 2014 Calder Cup Champs. Defensemen Dillon Heatherington (Lake Erie in 2016) and Andrew Bodnerchuk (Manchester in 2015) have also hoisted Calder Cups in their long AHL careers.
Nine-year vet Brent Regner, who Hogs fans may remember from his time with the Wolves and the Peoria Rivermen, had himself a career year with 10 goals and 21 assists in the regular season. Another veteran, Mark Mangene (7 G, 19 A) has spent time as a forward and a defensemen in the playoffs.
Former Sabres and Canadiens forward Brian Flynn spent 2017-18 with Texas and was quite productive (18 G, 29 A). He leads the Stars with six playoff goals.
Add in solid rookies like Roope Hintz (20 G, 15 A) and Sheldon Dries (19 G, 11 A) to a potent offensive group. First-year defenseman Gavin Bayreuther (7 G, 25 A) is picking up his game in the playoffs.
On the IceHogs side of the ledger, the move that brought Chris DiDomenico to Rockford keeps looking better and better. The veteran forward brings an edge to the Hogs that is evident in the playoffs. With four goals and seven helpers in the postseason, DiDomenico leads the team in scoring and is a catalyst on the power play along with Cody Franson (4 G, 4 A) and Adam Clendening (1 G, 8 A).
A real x-factor in the playoffs for Rockford has been Victor Ejdsell, who brings extra offensive skill to the table. Ejdsell had four points against Manitoba in the Central Division Final and leads the IceHogs with five goals.
Carl Dahlstrom and Viktor Svedberg have paired with Clendening and Franson, respectively, to form two tough defensive pairings. Gustav Forsling, who skated in 41 games for the Blackhawks this season, is on the third pairing with Darren Raddysh. This should give you an idea of the depth the Hogs boast on the blueline.
What has served as Rockford’s fourth forward line has also been led by a player with NHL experience. Tanner Kero has lent his defensive prowess with fast-skating William Pelletier and Anthony Louis. Again, to have players like Kero and Louis, who led the IceHogs in points in the regular season, skating in a fourth-line role speaks volumes about Rockford’s playoff depth.
Andreas Martinsen (2 G, 2 A in the playoffs), John Hayden and Lance Bouma have provided muscle for Rockford. The latter two have not made a big impact on the scoreboard in the postseason. Like players such as Kero and Luke Johnson, however, Hayden and Bouma could be players that step up against the Stars in the box score.
Rockford’s power play has been nothing short of awesome in the postseason, converting on 37.5 percent of its chances. The first unit of Franson, Clendening, DiDomenico, Johnson and Tyler Sikura have scored 10 of the Hogs 15 goals with opponents in the box.
The three veterans move the puck around the offensive zone until Franson gets open at the left dot for the one-timer. If the shot doesn’t find twine, Johnson and Sikura are there to clean up. If that look doesn’t pan out, it’s Clendening from the point or DiDomenico skating into the slot. That formula has been hard to stop.
Texas, however, held a pretty good Tuscon man advantage to just two goals in 17 opportunities in their Pacific Division Final. The penalty kill unit, which was less than average in the regular season, has stiffened up a bit. The Stars figure to be a more disciplined team than the Moose were; keeping the Hogs top power play unit off the ice will be a prime directive for Texas.
The IceHogs have been shorthanded 28 times in the playoffs and have surrendered just two goals. Neither of those were by Manitoba. Special teams have been a huge difference-maker. At some point, the Hogs may have to pick up the scoring at even strength. It will be fun to see how long this bunch can keep up the power play dominance, though.
For Rockford, the key will be the opening weekend of action and taking advantage of the 2-3-2 AHL playoff format. Getting one game in Cedar Park will give the IceHogs the chance to close out the series at home.
To say the Hogs are rolling at this point of the Calder Cup Playoffs would be an understatement. This group has the kind of chemistry that wins championships. Rockford is deep on both ends of the ice. They have dictated the style of play against two solid division opponents. It is safe to say that they have worn the opposition down with superior depth.
Texas is a veteran team that, on paper, has the horses to keep pace with the IceHogs. Like Rockford, the Stars seem to be hitting their peak right now. It should result in an exciting series.
Follow me on twitter @JonFromi for thoughts and updates on the IceHogs all through the playoffs.