In a season marred in disappointing results, regrettable periods and slow rookie progressions, one bright light has been the recent play of IceHogs’ veteran winger Jeff Taffe.
Taffe extended his season-long point streak to 14 games in a 4-3 overtime win over the Milwaukee Admirals last night before 5,907 fans at the Rockford MetroCentre.
Rockford won the game in overtime during a 4 on 3 power play. Rob Klinkhammer, who was the first star of the night scoring two goals, his 9th and 10th on the season, drew a cross-check from Admirals’ defenseman Teemu Laakso an minute and a half into OT as Klinkhammer was driving to the Milwaukee net for one of his many prime scoring chances on this night.
After the first power play unit failed to convert, Ben Smith won the game when he somehow chipped a puck up and around Milwaukee goaltender Anders Lindback.
It was fitting the game-winning goal came on a broken play. Shawn Lalonde’s one-timer attempt fed by Pete Leblanc failed when Lalonde’s stick shaft snapped in half on the follow through. But the puck did get to Smith at the net and bounced around before crossing the line.
After the game, Ben Smith said he hadn’t scored an overtime winner since pee-wees.
For Taffe, his streak moved forward off another fortunate Hogs’ bounce.
With the game tied four minutes into the third period, Taffe’s cross-ice pass attempt was blocked by the stick of a Milwaukee defender, and redirected towards the Admirals’ goal. But somehow Anders Lindback failed to glove the play dead and Klinkhammer pounced on the loose puck at the doorstep and fired it over Lindback to take a 3-2 lead.
Milwaukee’s Mike Bartlett tied the game at 10:53, capitalizing on some bad defensive zone puck handling by the home team. Ryan Flynn made a great read on Brian Connelly as he attempted to pass through the slot while skating towards his goal at the right faceoff dot. Flynn took the puck and deked around Richards but hit the far post. The rebound bounced around, eluding Simon Danis-Pepin, and Bartlett put it past Richards, who was unable to recover.
Jeff Taffe’s streak is now one game shy of Rockford’s franchise record of 15, held by Martin St. Pierre. As a playmaking center, St. Pierre’s streak (Nov 30, 2007 – January 4, 2008) consisted of 5 goals and 17 assists and has stood for three full seasons. Taffe’s 9 goals and 12 assists in 14 games have been collected entirely on Ryan Potulny’s right wing, both at even strength and the power play, which Taffe also sees time in both at wing and a point position.
After the game, Taffe was humble when asked about being on the verge of matching a team record.
“Oh, I didn’t even know that,” said Taffe. “Its one of those things that you hear long enough before the game because guys are reading stat packs. But during the game, you can’t think about stuff like that.”
“You get a few bounces here and there, and that extends it. But for the most part, I think my line mates have been playing well and keeping (the streak) up for me.”
While the streak began on January 28th, Taffe’s production has jumped a notch in the second half. Through his first 30 games, Taffe had 9 goals and 12 assists. In his last 22 games with Rockford, he has 12 goals and 14 helpers. But Taffe couldn’t point to anything specific in regards to the trends.
“No, I’m trying to play the same game. I always do try to be a little physical, get involved in the game. I think that always helps me out. You’re not going to feel great every night. I play with good enough players that I’m always going to get a few chances and they’re just happening to go in.”
Taffe can match St. Pierre’s record on Sunday when the Hogs’ travel to Houston for a 5pm puck drop. In six games with the Aeros this season, Taffe has posted a goal and six assists.
Dylan Olsen sat for most of the second half of Saturday’s game. If he got a shift in the third period, we didn’t see it and he didn’t touch the ice in overtime.
Olsen was victimized by Ryan Flynn on Milwaukee’s second goal. That one tied the game at 12:27 of the middle period when Olsen leaned to the outside, allowing Flynn clear to the Hogs’ net. A shift before that, Olsen committed a roughing penalty when he hit Kelsey Wilson high in the Hogs’ defensive corner.
It was an interesting decision from head coach Bill Peters, who was down three regular defenseman with Jassen Cullimore, Ryan Stanton and Ivan Vishnevksiy all missing the game due to injury. Thus, Wade Brookbank, who is a natural defenseman but has spent most of the season at forward, was moved back and Simon Danis-Pepin up on emergency recall from Toledo rounded out a depleted defense.
While a point was certainly made with the benching, after the game Peters didn’t criticize his young player.
“(Olsen)’s a young guy. Not overwhelmed. I wouldn’t say that’s the right word,” Peters said.
“He’s done great for us. We’ve given him too much too soon, probably. At times he’s been on our power play and penalty kill. He’s a 19-year old kid. He’s 20 now. Just small, little steps with him. He moves the puck well, he’s a great skater. He’s got a real good future.”
Klinkhammer a monster
Rob Klinkhammer was the best player on the ice Saturday and more than deserving of his first-star distinction. Per usual, Klinkhammer worked hard all over the ice, was dominant on the penalty kill and created numerous chances with dogged determination.
Klinkhammer’s first goal of the night came when he picked up a loose puck and center ice and drove wide around Admirals’ alternate captain Scott Ford before putting a puck under Anders Lindback’s right arm.
You couldn’t qualify that goal as a true breakaway, but it certainly felt like a weight was lifted off Klinkhammer’s back. Klinkhammer’s issues with finishing his breakaway chances are the stuff of legend around the Rockford this year.
“Well, we don’t even joke about it anymore,” Peters said after the game. “It got to be the point where we’d joke about it. Now we don’t even talk about it.”
Klinkhammer has broken free for breakaways no less than ten times this year on the penalty kill alone and has yet to convert any of those chances. He’s had at least another handful at even strength. A few minutes before his second period goal, Klinkhammer hustled into yet another short-handed breakaway but shot the puck wide.
In any event, Klinkhammer is thriving now since being moved up to the top line with Taffe and Potulny. Before, the winger had spent most of the season with Evan Brophey. While Bill Peters said he like Klinkhammer and Brophey together, the team’s recent stretch of losses forced him to try some different combinations.
For sure, this one is clicking.
Bobby Hull Night
The Blackhawks’ legend was the guest of honor Saturday night in Rockford. Hull signed autographs and chatted with lucky IceHogs’ fans literally all evening. The game ended at 9:30. At 11:00 p.m., there were still 25 people in line waiting for Hull’s autograph. The affable Hull doesn’t just scribble his autograph and pose for a quick photo, he likes to engage in a quick conversation with each fan he greets. Only a limited number of fans who showed up when the gates opened received a wristband and the opportunity to meet Hull. He was brought out on the ice before the game for a ceremonial puck drop as well.
For the first time of the season, the IceHogs are going on an extended road trip. Sunday morning the team will bus to O’Hare airport and fly down to Houston for a 5pm game with the Aeros. They’ll then have two days off before a rematch with the Aeros on Wednesday.
Jeff Taffe said this is a trip his teammates have been looking forward too for some time.
“I think its gonna be a lot of fun,” Taffe said. “You know, it’s kind of a bleak picture for us right now, playoff wise. But, as long as we keep playing hard and play the spoiler role, it fun. I mean, these teams in our division, they’re fighting it out right now for their playoff spots. So, there’s not going to be an easy game. But like you said, on the road we’re gonna get some days off and be able to hang out and do some stuff (as a team). I think it’ll be a lot of fun for the younger guys.”
Rockford’s next seven games are on the road. They’ll spend the next eleven days traveling together, playing six games before making a brief stop home on March 10th. They’ll finish the trip on Friday March 11th in Milwaukee.
“We’ll do a lot of team stuff. Just take ‘em one game at a time,” Taffe said. “Guys have been looking forward to this trip. A little sunshine goes a long ways and that’ll help us out and bring a little more energy to the rink too.”
The IceHogs return to the MetroCentre on Sunday March 13th to face the Chicago Wolves.