** Another huge back-to-back is upon the Rockford IceHogs this weekend as they attempt to climb back into a tough AHL West division playoff race.
40 games into the season, Rockford (19-16-1-4) is three games above .500, yet nine points out of the 4th and final playoff spot in their division. The IceHogs find hope though in that they own ‘games in hand’ on every team in their division and the majority of their second half will be spent facing those teams above them in the division.
So, while the season is far from over, every point is a big one.
Tonight the current 3rd seed in the West Division, Oklahoma City visits Rockford. These two teams have traded wild 6-5 decisions of late. The Hogs dropped a New Years Day game at Oklahoma City 2-1 on a night both IceHogs’ special teams units let them down.
Rockford has five games in hand on OKC, and trail them by nine points as well. A win tonight would put Rockford in line to reach the Barons once they catch OKC in the games played column.
Tomorrow night the San Antonio Rampage return for a rematch of this past Monday’ MetroCentre matinee, which the IceHogs took 2-1. All scoring in that one came in the third period. Goals on the Rockford side came first from Evan Brophey, then Hugh Jessiman.
San Antonio is 8 points up on Rockford and currently in 6th place. They also have played four more contests than the IceHogs to this point.
As we mentioned earlier this week, odds are the 5th place team in the West will wind up with more points than the 4-seed in the North division, thus sliding over and taking that spot. But competition for that spot will be fierce as teams currently 3rd through 7th are separated by just three points.
Games in hand don’t mean a thing if you don’t turn those into points. A mediocre start, coupled with being in the toughest division in the AHL leave Rockford with little room for error.
The IceHogs are 7-3-0-0 over the last ten games, their best stretch of the season. Kyle Beach, Evan Brophey and Hannu Toivonen have led the way, playing the best each of those three have to this point.
One aspect of the team still in need of a turnaround is the power play. Rockford has converted on just 2 of its last 41 opportunities with the man advantage. 5% won’t cut it if the IceHogs want to keep their recent string of success intact moving forward.
** When the Blackhawks signed 6-year pro Hugh Jessiman this past summer, they were hoping to add some veteran leadership as well as some scoring touch to their AHL lineup.
Jessiman is a former 1st round NHL Entry draft selection of the New York Rangers. Ever since graduating from the Dartmouth University in 2005, Jessiman has played exclusively in the minor leagues. Wherever he’s played, Jessiman has been a consistent 20-goal performer.
Thus far with Rockford, Jessiman has 3 goals and 1 assist in just 19 games.
Unfortunately it’s been a season of injuries for Jessiman, as coach Bill Peters explains.
“ Hugh has had a tough start to the year,” Peters explained.
“He was banged up in Chicago. He was hurt in the summer. He had shoulder surgery in the summer and then he had a groin injury out of the main camp and has been behind because of that all year and he’s trying to get caught up. That’s where he’s at. And he’s had a lower-body injury here that held him out for the longest time. And he had a hard time generating power with his skating because of that lower-body injury. So, he’s had a tough go. He’s a guy we need to get going at a better level.”
After missing a month with that “lower-body” injury, Jessiman returned to the lineup on January 7th in the IceHogs 5-1 home loss to Toronto. He sat the next night against Grand Rapids after skating in the warmup and missed the following game versus Houston as well.
But Jessiman has dressed for the last three games and appears to be coming along nicely.
He tallied career professional goal number 100 against San Antonio on Monday and has been a needed physical presence along the walls. That goal was Jessiman’s first since November 12th and it also ended a personal 10-game drought. He was also a minus-4 and credited with just 14 shots in that ten game span.
With 40 games now remaining in the IceHogs’ regular season, Rockford will need a healthy Hugh Jessiman if they hope to get back into playoff contention.
While 20 goals will be hard for him to come by this year, ten goals properly placed in the second half could make a huge difference in where this team finishes.
** An update on center/right wing Chris DiDomenico, who was demoted from AHL-Rockford to ECHL-Toledo Walleye on January 6th.
DiDomenico carries a two-game goal streak into this weekend’s action. Toledo has three games this weekend, all at home, starting tonight against Elmira. They’ll rematch Elmira again on Saturday before Cincinnati visits Toledo on Sunday.
In six games with the Walleye, DiDomenico has posted 2 goals and 5 assists. He’s also a minus-5, however. But at least he’s getting ice time there he evidently wasn’t getting in Rockford.
DiDomenico was a healthy scratch 15 times out of the IceHogs first 34 games. When DiDomenico did play, it was mostly with the 3rd and 4th lines.
Rockford coach Bill Peters was very clear on what is preventing DiDomenico from seeing time with the IceHogs this season.
“Well, DiDo’s got to get stronger,” coach Bill Peters said. “DiDo’s got to be able to play the game at a pro-pace.
DiDo’s got great hands and vision. I really like his upside. I like what he can do. He can play on a power play. But’s he gotta be able to do it against men.”
Peters compared DiDomenico’s reassignment to Peter Leblanc’s October demotion.
“So what’s gonna happen now is (DiDomenico)’s going to go down short-term and get lots of minutes. He wasn’t getting good minutes, valuable minutes, power play minutes here on a consistent basis. He’ll get that in Toledo.
And then he can get himself going, no different than what Peter Leblanc did. Peter Leblanc went down there, got off to a great start, came up here and continued on. He’s playing with confidence making puck plays.”
However, Peters stressed while ice time will help DiDomenico in the interim, he still has a lot of work to do in the weight room.
“The biggest thing for DiDo, when the season ends, whenever that may be, is to have himself a wonderful off season. Be able to come back a different player as far as being stronger. Be able to win one-on-one battles in the offensive zone and be able to pull away from defenders in the neutral zone. Those are things he struggles with right now.”
** Another player now benefiting from regular ice time at lower-level Toledo is six-foot seven inch defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin. Like DiDomenico, Danis-Pepin had a difficult time staying in Peters’ lineup consistently. Since getting sent to the Walleye on January 8th, Danis-Pepin has played in 5 games, posting 2 assists and a minus-1 plus/minus rating. He also got into his first fight of the season last Saturday in Trenton against regular pugilist Myles Stoesz, who, aside from fulfilling the enforcer role his entire pro career in the ECHL, was a regular atop the PIM column during his career in the Western Hockey League in the middle of the 2000’s.
Danis-Pepin, a product of the University of Maine and the Hawks’ 2nd round pick (61st overall) in 2006, has done well to improve on his skating but still has issues handling the puck under pressure. He’s a stay-at-home type who was a regular on the penalty kill when he was in the IceHogs’ line up.
Danis-Pepin has one more year remaining on his Blackhawks’ contract.