Nov 282010

Bill Peters’ search for answers has so far turned up dry.

After watching his team come out flat inexplicably for fifth time in this season’s first nine home games, the Rockford head coach retreated to his bench on Saturday night exasperated for the third period.

By my count, Peters used at least twelve different line combinations over the final twenty minutes.  It was orchestrated chaos and Peters’ team responded with its best period of the night, but that wasn’t even enough to get on the scoreboard.

Rockford outshot Peoria 12-6 in the third and 31-21 in the game but Peoria won the only count that matters, defeating IceHogs by a score of 5-0 at the MetroCentre.

In the win, Peoria rookie Jake Allen set a Rivermen AHL (2005-current) franchise record for shutouts in a single season by white-washing the Rockford shooters 31 times, to post his 4th shutout in just 8 starts.  The previous Peoria shutout record (3) was set by Manny Legace during the 2008-09 season.

Saturday’s was a team shutout.  Allen was very good and made some great stops locating pucks through screens and one-on-one challenges.  But his defense also cleared a lot of rebounds and beat the IceHogs to most of the loose pucks in the Peoria zone.

The latter point was the story of the night.  Rockford could not match Peoria’s intensity from the initial puck drop through to the final horn.  A few players tried and succeeded in spurts.  Garnet Exelby showed some snarl late in the first, but the score was already 3-0 by then.  Kyle Beach had his best, most physical shift in weeks with five minutes to go in the middle period.  Jeremy Morin stood up to Peoria defenders on occasion one night after getting into a spirited fight with Red Wings’ defensive prospect Brendan Smith.

Of course there is a question if this Rockford team is capable or quick enough to play a physical game.  Evan Brophey, Jeff Taffe and Brandon Bollig, among others, all had checks side-stepped early on.  Garnet Exelby whiffed on a center-ice hip check attempt on Philip McRae, which led to an Igor Makarov defensive-zone tripping penalty.

Peoria didn’t cash in on their first power play, but moments afterwards Anthony Nigro did appear to catch Alec Richards guessing on a rising shot that flew over Richards’ shrugged left shoulder.  Nigro has two goals in 16 games.  Both have come against Alec Richards.

Brandon Bollig was cited for holding a whole three seconds after Nigro’s goal and Peoria did not miss on that power play opportunity.  Former and two-time Rockford IceHogs winger Derek Nesbitt one-timed a Graham Mink pass at 8:06 of the first period to increase Peoria’s lead to 2-0.

The ‘dagger’ came five minutes later when Nick Drazenovic pounced on a loose puck just outside of Richards’ reach before any IceHog could find it for his 7th goal of the season.  Mink was the setup man on this tally as well.  Richards was pulled in favor of Hannu Toivonen at the start of the second period.

Again the IceHogs’ power play was putrid.  Both first and second units blew an early minute and thirty-three seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage.  Overall, the power play was blanked in 7 opportunities, which included two 5 on 3’s.  A few of Allen’s best stops on the night, including a point-blank stoning of Jeff Taffe came during a first period Ian Cole penalty.  Cole, a former Notre Dame defenseman who has been up with the Blues this year, manhandled Kyle Beach along the wall in the Peoria zone but took it too far with a few extra shots as Beach lay prone on the ice and got called for roughing.

Already the fifth of ten meetings between division rivals this season, Peoria and Rockford are two teams with a lot of recent bad blood between them.  Back on November 9th at MetroCentre, the two teams dropped the gloves 8 times and combined for a total of 158 penalty minutes.  On Saturday, they teamed up for another 80 PIM’s, two fights and three misconduct penalties.  The West division-rival Rivermen hold a commanding 4-1 season-series lead at the halfway point.

Kyle Beach dropped the gloves twice.  First at 7:27 of the 3rd with Philip McRae, son of former NHL tough guy Basil McRae.  Phil is big (6-3, 200) though more a finesse player than his father.  Beach and McRae through some tight punches before grapping each other for the takedown.  Officially, McRae would get the takedown, but Beach wouldn’t stop laying on his back and landed three punches before the linesmen could step in.

In the final minute, Beach goaded Rivermen defenseman and team captain Dean Arsene into a fight.  Beach threw the first punch but then turtled after Arense tossed his gloves and unloaded on the instigator.  After Arsene was pulled off by the linesemen, Beach arose laughing and taunting the Peoria bench, apparently figuring he’d tricked Arsene into a late fighting major and perhaps a misconduct.  Well, down 5-0 with 14 seconds to go, Beach was the only one laughing because the joke was on him.  Referee Shaun Davis saw the initial punch and gave Beach and Arsene offsetting fighting majors.

The IceHogs have now been shutout twice early in the 2010-11 campaign.  More devastatingly, Rockford has been held to 2 goals or less 13 times this season in 21 games.

20-year old Peoria rookie Jake Allen was St. Louis’ 2nd round draft choice in 2008 (#34 overall) and finished his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League career in Drummonville last season (a teammate of Rockford center Chris DiDomenico) going 18-3-0 with a 1.75 GAA and .933 save percentage, which are incredible numbers, especially in the QMJHL.  Allen was named the league’s goaltender of the year.

A crowd of 5,233 was in attendance on Jack Skille Bobblehead night.  Through 9 home games, the IceHogs are averaging 3,902 fans per game, 624 more than last season through 9 games.

Bill Peters’ lines started out:

Jeff Taffe – Ryan Potulny – Jeremy Morin

Igor Makarov – Evan Brophey – Ben Smith

Kyle Beach – Brandon Pirri – Brandon Bollig

Kyle Hagel – Mathis Olimb – Hugh Jessiman

Ryan Stanton – Nick Leddy

Brian Connelly – Simon Danis-Pepin

Garnet Exelby – Shawn Lalonde

As the second period wore along, Peters kept only the first line intact.  Pirri was slotted between Beach and Jessiman.  Mathis Olimb moved up to Brophey’s left wing with Ben Smith staying on right wing.  Igor Makarov was the odd man out as the fourth line was then Hagel with Makarov and Bollig.  That line’s first shift didn’t come until midway through the period as Peters challenged his best offensive players.  The defense was also much more active in that period.  In the third period, Peters tried just about every line combination he could.

On Saturday, Brandon Pirri and Kyle Beach each bore a treacherous -4 on their plus/minus rating.  In this case; not a misleading statistic.

Another issue Bill Peters must address is his team’s indecisiveness and reluctance to drive to the net on the rush.  Too many times the lead puck carrier will stop, skate away from the goal, drop or pass back to a trailer.  Evan Brophey took this to a new level with 4:30 left in the third when he was skating in on Allen but instead of shooting, backhanded a pass from the right circle to Igor Makarov, who was just getting to the high left-circle.

Pirri added a new wrinkle to Bill Peters’ ever-expanding Don’t Do list.  Pulling free from a Stefan Della Rovere stick-check, Pirri was fifteen feet out from Jake Allen when Pirri chose to dramatically flail his arms and fall to the ice, when he possibly had Rockford’s best chance to score on his stick.  One could assume Pirri was hoping for a penalty shot (Pirri leads the league, 4 for 4, in the shootout), but he passed up a sure scoring opportunity and put himself in the box as well in the process.  Luckily for Pirri, a post-whistle scrum ensued and Rockford wound up with a power play anyway.

Rockford will now have until Thursday to search for answers and look to prevent a disastrous first half when they visit Houston for back-to-back games Thursday and Friday.  Thursday’s game is an 11:05am puck drop for a special “Kids Day” promotion.  Friday’s game sets back to a traditional 7:35 start.

From there Rockford will play seven in a row on home ice as well as 8 of 9 at MetroCentre to close out the calendar year.  If there will be a time for the IceHogs to put a strong stretch together and get back in the West Division race, it is now.  16 of Rockford’s next 24 games are at home.  After Saturday’s games, Rockford is 8-11-0-2 (18pts).  They’re last in the West Division and Western conference overall.  Just two AHL teams, Syracuse (16) and Adirondack (8pts, 3-17-2-0) have fewer points.

At home, Rockford is off to a 3-5-0-1 record.  You can partly blame that on the following 2010-11 MetroCentre numbers:

Igor Makarov: 9gp, 2g, 2a, -2, 19sog [0 sog Sat]
Brandon Pirri: 8gp, 1g, 2a, -6, 14sog [-4 Sat]
Jeremy Morin: 6gp, 1g, 1a, +3, 13sog [5sog Sat]
Evan Brophey: 8gp, 1g, 0a, -2, 17sog
Hugh Jessiman: 5gp, 0g, 0a, -3, 7sog [0 sog Sat]
Nick Leddy:      7gp, 0g, 2a, -6, 12sog

We will have full coverage of Thursday’s matinee in Houston here on the web site.

About Saturday’s game:

– While Toivonen allowed two bad ones in the third, the game was realistically out of reach long before then.  Richards wasn’t bombarded in the first (8 shots against) but two of those three goals were tough stops to make. In contrast to a few weeks ago when Toivonen was shaky and Richards struggled to put two or three strong starts together, the goaltending lately has been the best its been all season and the team’s strength by a wide margin.

– Kyle Beach is a game in and of himself.  It was a typical Kyle Beach game.  At times he looked great.  Others he was behind the play losing his focus and sidetracked in trying to draw silly unsportsmanlike and roughing penalties.  Beach’s best shift in awhile came with about five minutes left in the second.  There, he was insistent on putting a hit on every Rivermen player he could line up and made a nice bodycheck on a Peoria forward to keep the puck in the offensive zone despite Beach having been on the ice for well over a minute.  Beach also had a nice scoring chance from the slot which Allen stopped.  But it was the type of shift Beach should pursue more often.  If so, he’ll generate more turnovers, scoring chances for himself and his linemates and draw penalties with honest effort, not his usual stickwork and chirpy nonsense.

– Wade Brookbank and Chris DiDomenico were healthy scratches.  For DiDomenico, it was the 8th time.  Brookbank, 33, has missed some time with injury in addition to being a healthy scratch prior to Jassen Cullimore’s October recall to Chicago.  Brookbank is usually a defenseman, but has spent more time at wing to this point of the season.  Even when he’s slotted in at wing, he slots back to the point on the penalty kill.

– Rob Klinkhammer and Ivan Vishnevskiy both missed the game with nagging lower-body issues.  Klinkhammer missed all three games this week (Wed-Fri-Sat), which are the only times he’s sat out thus far.  He’s expected back very soon.  Vishnevskiy was ruled out of the three recent games early in the week.  Vishnevskiy’s absence is especially critical.  Rockford’s power play is 2 for 25 with Vishnevskiy out of the lineup.  In Wednesday’s game against Lake Erie, and with Lalonde a healthy scratch, one power play unit consisted of five forwards.  For whatever reason, Peters wouldn’t use Exelby, Stanton, Brookbank or Danis-Pepin on one point versus Lake Erie.  Power play that night was 0 for 4.

– Peoria were missing two of their best skaters, up with St. Louis, filling in for injuries.  Chris Porter, a former draft pick of the Blackhawks who signed with the Blues organization after not coming to terms with the Hawks after his career at North Dakota ended in 2007.  Porter was the Fighting Sioux captain the same year Toews finished up at UND.  Also with the Blues is center and former Colorado Avalanche 3rd round pick TJ Hensick, who has gotten rave reviews for his work all around in Peoria.

– When the offense has been good, the goaltending’s been bad and vice versa.  Or so it seems.  Saturday, both missed the intended target.  Maybe it’s the two steps back before one step forward moment?  The offense can’t get much worse.  Rockford has hit the scoresheet just 18 times in 12 games this month for a 1.5 goals per game average.  The IceHogs have emerged victorious twice this month in the shootout, but we count only actual goals scored in the 60-65 minute game.  Conversely, Rockford has surrendered 31 goals against in the month of November.  That’s 2.58 goals allowed per game.

There’s a misconception of sorts that this team has squandered great goaltending when they get it.  In six of the twelve games this month, Rockford held their opponents to 2 or fewer goals against.  The IceHogs won four of those six; Two in shootouts while also losing once in a shootout after holding Peoria to two goals through overtime on the 21st at Carver Arena.  The last of those six games noted came in the form of a 1-0 loss at San Antonio on November 11th.  Rockford responded a week later by blanking the Moose in Winnipeg 1-0.  On the other hand, IceHogs’ netminders have given up 4 or more on seven occasions this year (33% of games).  Rockford has a 1-7-0-0 record when four or more goals are scored on them.  The goal differential in those seven games; 13-33.

– Hugh Jessiman has dressed in 14-consecutive games since returning from the groin injury he suffered in Blackhawks’ training camp.  His work in the corners and along the walls is good, but the 6’5″ winger isn’t getting to the net enough.  He’s not as ineffective as his stats (2g – 0a) would indicate.  But he’s been as next-to-it as next-to-ineffective comes.  He’s also been saddled with Evan Brophey, who has been brutal since his one-game call up on October 23rd.  Brophey doesn’t have a point (13gms) since his NHL debut with the Blackhawks.  In all, Brophey has gone 15 games without a point after starting the first four games with two goals and an assist.  Brophey sat out the Nov 21st visit to Peoria because of a lower-body issue.  Its probably time Brophey be excused a game or two for hockey reasons.  He’s a third line center who rarely gets power play time and isn’t going to be an answer to that special teams unit’s woes anytime soon.  He’s expendable for the moment.

– When Klinkhammer gets back this Thursday (which sounds probable), this should force either Kyle Hagel or Brandon Bollig out of the lineup.  Bollig is not an AHL level player right now.  Maybe with increased minutes in Toledo he can return and be more effective, but right now the only time you notice him is when he’s late meeting his check or fighting somebody.  At 6’3″-225, Bollig won’t improve without ice time.  While a major issue of this team is how they get pushed around and lose many of the one-on-one battles, Bollig is a fourth liner who hasn’t been a positive in that category to this point anyway.  Hagel is smaller (6-0, 205) but quicker and is a regular on the PK unit.  While Bollig doesn’t have a spot on either special teams unit.

– We’ve mentioned before how center Chris DiDomenico (acquired from Toronto along with winger Philippe Paradis and Viktor Stalberg in the June 30th trade for Kris Versteeg and the rights to Billy Sweatt) is the odd-guy out here with Mathis Olimb back from shoulder rehabilitation.  DiDomenico suffered a broken right femur in May of 2009 that limited his season at Drummondville to the final 12 games of the regular season and another 14 in the QMJHL playoffs.  But in those 26 games, DiDomenico posted a whopping 14 goals and 29 assists (43pts).  Before the leg injury, DiDomenico struggled with concussion issues which limited his 2008-09 season to 51 games.  Sitting in the stands and skating on the fourth line with Hagel and Bollig when he does dress isn’t doing DiDomenico’s game any favors.


– With the World Junior Championships under a month away, there is growing speculation if the IceHogs will be without two of, if not their best players for two weeks while they skate for Team USA during the prestigious international tournament in Buffalo.  Nick Leddy and Jeremy Morin, both 19, will be invited to play for the U.S. and its up to the Blackhawks whether or not to allow them to participate.  For Morin, it would be a chance to defend the Gold medal he and his teammates won in Saskatoon last January when they defeated Canada 6-5 in overtime.

There is recent precedent set in regards to NHL prospects signed and skating in the minors being absent from their AHL teams in favor of participating in the IIHF WJC’s.  Last season, John Carlson (Hershey) of the Capitals and Alex Pietrangelo (Rivermen) of the Blues, were both excused from their AHL teams by their parent organizations to take part in the tournament.  Both Pietrangelo and Carlson are regulars for their respective NHL clubs this season. Carlson scored the OT winner for the United States in the gold medal game against Canada.

Morin posted two goals and five assists for the U.S. over seven games in last year’s tournament and would be a leader and go-to guy on this team should he partake.  The Anaheim Ducks will contemplate Cam Fowler’s potential participation probably as you read this, but Fowler’s ascending workload on the Ducks’ blue line may prohibit that.  Brandon Pirri may be on Team Canada’s radar, but being that he wasn’t included in Canada’s 48-player August evaluation camp, Pirri may be a longshot.  But, considering several who attended that camp, including Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeffrey Skinner and Kyle Clifford are getting significant minutes in the NHL, perhaps Pirri gets a courtesy look.

Canada is announcing its pre-tournament selection camp on Monday.  So we’ll know then.  Their first exhibition game comes December 20th in Oshawa.  It will be interesting to see if Blackhawks 2009 1st rounder Dylan Olsen joins the team.  Even though Olsen is a key defender on the top ranked team by many in US college hockey, he’s still not considered one of the best Canadian blue line prospects going.  Canada’s defense is very deep and will include Erik Gudbranson, Ryan Ellis, Simon Despres, Jared Cowen and Calvin de Haan all for sure.  It’s a tough call.

It’s hard to imagine the IceHogs without Leddy and Morin for any stretch of time, but the experience of defending a tournament championship while representing their country would be a great experience and beneficial down the road for all parties involved: the players, the IceHogs and ultimately the Blackhawks.

After a home game with Lake Erie on the 18th, Rockford is off a full 7 days (19-25th) before resuming action on Boxing Day against Milwaukee at MetroCentre.  Leddy and Morin would miss a minimum of five games should they join Team USA for the 2011 IIHF WJC.  The tournament begins as always on December 26th and ends on Wednesday January 5th this time around.  The IceHogs host Toronto and Grand Rapids on January 7th and 8th respectively.

Blackhawks’ 2010 1st round pick Kevin Hayes (Boston College), who is currently out of action with a posterior cruciate ligament injury suffered during a November 7th practice, took part in Team USA’s summer evaluation camp alongside Leddy and Morin and would be expected to play on the U.S. team in Buffalo should he return to B.C.’s lineup soon.  BC hosts Vermont this afternoon.

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