Hours after the Chicago Blackhawks and NHL office made his first professional hockey contract official, Jimmy Hayes got his first experience in the pro ranks for the Rockford IceHogs.
Under the guise of an amateur-try out contract, Hayes made his debut in Cleveland on Wednesday night as the IceHogs took on the Lake Erie Monsters. Hayes’ entry-level pro contract with the Hawks kicks in on July 1st.
Hayes acquitted himself quite well in his unofficial pro debut. He exhibited nice hands, decent wheels and didn’t seem too out of place all things considered. The adjustment from college to the pro-pace wasn’t too much of a factor, at least in Lake Erie. Oklahoma City on Friday poses a different challenge.
On his first shift, skating with Mathis Olimb and Ben Smith on the Hogs’ second-line Hayes showed good strides in transition leading a Hogs’ odd-man rush up the right side boards. Hayes strung a slick pass just an inch or two further than Olimb could handle though, coming down just left of the slot and they didn’t get a scoring chance there.
In the middle period, Hayes again led a rush, but it also amounted to nothing. Hayes was carrying the lead with Olimb and Andy Bohmbach on a 3-on-2, but Hayes lost the handle as he strode through the right circle. He finished the game with three shots. He’s not shy on the body but it appears he prefers to use his stick and he’ll have to shake that too much finesse with his head down college habit. So its great for the Hawks, and IceHogs, Hayes is able to join up for some valuable minutes before an all-important off season.
Before the game Bill Peters noted he plans to dress Hayes in all seven (Wednesday included) of the IceHogs remaining games. Peters was down six regulars (add another if you count Jeremy Morin) on Wednesday, so Hayes saw as much or more ice time as he figures to get in any single outing over the final two weeks of the season.
Kyle Beach, Igor Makarov, Evan Brophey, Pete Leblanc, Brandon Bollig, Jeremy Morin and defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy were all out of Wednesday’s tilt. Brophey was suspended on Tuesday for the remainder of the season for his blindside headshot on Hamilton’s Hunter Bishop last Friday night. The other six are all out with various ailments.
As for the game, Rockford dominated play early but Lake Erie scored on their first shot when Julian Talbot picked far corner on Hannu Toivonen from the outside hash-left circle 5:59 into the opening period.
Rockford would tie at 16:23 of the period when Garnet Exelby blew a slapper by Jason Bacashihua and a Jeff Taffe screen. The goal was the captain’s 3rd of the season. Rob Klinkhammer got that play started by carrying the play into the Monsters’ zone and then dumping it down the wall to Brandon Pirri before heading off to change. Pirri then fed Exelby through two Lake Erie sticks to set up the chance.
The second period didn’t begin as well as the first for Rockford and the result was the same. For some reason, Brandon Pirri didn’t change when his other linemates swapped with the second-liners at the 50 second mark. Pirri did have a brief opportunity, but whether there was miscommunication at the bench or he chose to stay with the play, Pirri then got stuck in the defensive zone for following 35 seconds. Rockford could not get the puck away from Lake Erie, who had the IceHogs pinned and chasing for a solid half minute. Then Pirri failed to clear the zone off a weak backhand attempt through the middle of the ice from behind Toivonen. Lake Erie’s Matt Ford then beat Pirri to the front of the net and put a rebound over Toivonen’s left shoulder to put the Monsters up 2-1.
A power play tally from Jeff Taffe would tie the game late in the period. Rockford went up a man after Steve Oleksy tried to take Klinkhammer’s knees out as the IceHogs winger pursued a scoring chance. Brian Connelly deserves the credit for making the goal happen. Connelly used some slick stickhandling work to keep the puck in the offensive zone after a Taffe giveaway. He then pushed the puck down the left wall to Smith, who advanced to Klinkhammer on the goal line, who fed Taffe in the middle of the slot for an absolute bomb of a slap shot that sailed over Bacashihua’s glove before the Lake Erie goaltender had a chance to react.
Brian Connelly got on the scoreboard himself five minutes into the third period with some help from Chris DiDomenico and Mathis Olimb. DiDomenico showed good wheels through the neutral zone after he picked up a puck chipped by a Lake Erie defenseman by Olimb. Once in the offensive zone, DiDomenico slammed the breaks on the left side half wall and dished to an on-coming Connelly for a one-time rocket that beat the Monsters’ goalie cleanly.
While both teams got a little sloppy following, Connelly’s goal would stand as the winner.
Rockford’s 3-2 over the Lake Erie Monsters set their new season-high 5-game winning streak. The victory also put the IceHogs a game over the .500 mark for the first time since January 22. Thirteen games, that’s how many times they’ve been a game or more above .500 following a game. 3 games over is their high-mark, reached once on January 17.
Although the IceHogs remain #8 and last in their division, this recent surge (9-3-0-1) now hold a record that is better than seven other teams in the AHL; six being in the opposite conference.
Bill Peters posted 40+ wins in each of his first two seasons in Rockford. Running the table here in the final six would get his team to 39.
Hannu Toivonen stopped 23 shots in the win. The power play did go 1 for 8 (officially, it was really 1 for 7 as the last one was with 25 seconds left in the game), but the PK was a perfect 3-3. The latter note is especially important considering the team was without three of its top penalty killers (Brophey, Makarov and Leblanc).
You have to be impressed with the team’s play of late. It hasn’t been pretty at times. They’ve been outplayed their fair share and also been the beneficiary of some luck they weren’t receiving earlier in the season. The biggest difference though is how they haven’t allowed one or two bad plays to get them down. They’ve responded when before as a team they more often than not folded when things didn’t go their way. Call it maturation. Perhaps its simply the fact that the pressure has been off since mid-February when they dropped eight of nine and squandered any hopes of postseason hockey. Whichever the case, they’re winning.
Wednesday’s lines and defensive pairings (how they started)
Rob Klinkhammer – Brandon Pirri – Jeff Taffe
Mathis Olimb – Ben Smith – Jimmy Hayes
Kyle Hagel – Chris DiDomenico – Wade Brookbank
Andy Bohmbach – Zach Torquato – Mike Hedden
Ryan Stanton – Brian Connelly
Garnet Exelby – Shawn Lalonde
Jassen Cullimore – Dylan Olsen
As the game wore along the top line & defense stayed intact, but the other three forward lines moved around a bit. Smith and DiDomenico both saw time between Hedden & Torquato (moving to the right wing) and DiDomenico moved up to the pivot between Olimb and Hayes. That also served as the trio on the second power play unit.
Power play 1: Klinkhammer – Smith (C & net-front) – Pirri w/Connelly & Taffe
Power play 2: Olimb – DiDomenico – Hayes w/Olsen & Lalonde
Scratches: Kyle Beach (day-to-day), Brandon Bollig (day-to-day), Jeremy Morin (indefinite), Igor Makarov (whatever comes after day-to-day), Pete Leblanc (day-to-day) and Ivan Vishnevskiy (unknown), Evan Brophey (suspended; season over)
Beach, Bollig and Leblanc are each expected back in the lineup Friday in Oklahoma City or Sunday in Austin, Texas at the latest. Makarov shouldn’t be far behind. We’ll have plenty more on Makarov soon.
Consecutive IceHogs’ games without a goal: Shawn Lalonde (36), Dylan Olsen (36), Wade Brookbank (22), Simon Danis-Pepin (22), Chris DiDomenico (21), Ivan Vishnevskiy (16), Nick Leddy (12), Zach Torquato (12), Brandon Bollig (11), Andy Bohmbach (6), Jassen Cullimore (5), Kyle Hagel (5), Pete Leblanc (5), Ryan Stanton (4), Kyle Beach (2), Evan Brophey (2), Brandon Pirri (2), Jimmy Hayes (1), Mike Hedden (1), Rob Klinkhammer (1), Igor Makarov (1), Jeremy Morin (1), Mathis Olimb (1), Ben Smith (1), Brian Connelly (-), Garnet Exelby (-), Jeff Taffe (-),
Consecutive IceHogs’ games without an assist: Wade Brookbank (50), Brandon Bollig (53), Zach Torquato (12), Garnet Exelby (11), Ryan Stanton (8), Brian Connelly (4), Shawn Lalonde (4), Jeremy Morin (4), Kyle Hagel (3), Ivan Vishnevskiy (3), Jassen Cullimore (2), Simon Danis-Pepin (2), Dylan Olsen (2), Andy Bohmbach (1), Kyle Beach (1), Jimmy Hayes (1), Mike Hedden (-), Nick Leddy (1), Igor Makarov (1), Jeff Taffe (1), Evan Brophey (-), Chris DiDomenico (-), Rob Klinkhammer (-), Pete Leblanc (-), Mathis Olimb (-), Brandon Pirri (-), Ben Smith (-),
— Three guys are hot right now
Ben Smith has 9 goals in his last 15 games. An enigmatic coincidence perhaps, but Wednesday’s helper on the Taffe power play goal was Smith’s only assist in his last 20 games.
Jeff Taffe’s last 7 games (4g, 3a)
Brian Connelly has been great too; 4g, 3a, +9 over his last ten games.
— When Kyle Beach gets back in, possibly Friday night in Oklahoma City, he’ll be looking to finish his first full pro-season on a strong note. Beach, who has been out the last five games with a minor injury (you get even less detail at the minor league level), had posted just 1 goal and 3 assists (-5 as well) in the last 13 games he’s made the lineup card.
— That huge smile you saw on Mathis Olimb’s face heading back to the bench after scoring Rockford’s first goal at Chicago on Sunday was an expression of relief. The goal ended Olimb’s 26 game goal drought.
Olimb is an RFA on July 1 and it will be interesting to see what each side wants to do. He’s a little guy and doesn’t have the frame to get much bigger. Coming off a surgery which most athletes will tell you takes a full year to fully come back from, it might be a little tough to judge him completely.
Olimb showed some promise early but over his last 40 games he has just 2 goals and 16 helpers. He doesn’t shoot nearly enough (and that could have something to do with the shoulder injured in the July incident with Kyle Beach), just 65 shots in those 40 games, for a winger. But he does skate hard and gives an honest effort in all zones.
— His numbers don’t bear it out [last 25 games; 1g, 2a, -7, 31sog, 88pim], but Kyle Hagel has been playing great and having a huge impact in his role of late. He’s an emotional and physical leader on the club; a workaholic, lead-by-example type guy as well. He’ll at the very least get an invite to several NHL camps in the fall. If Hagel doesn’t get a contract here or elsewhere and the Hawks aren’t one of those teams holding out an invite, I think they’re missing out. Hagel would be sorely missed in Rockford next year. He’s a natural winger, but can skate a little at center in a pinch.
— Dylan Olsen is back skating regular shifts now with Vishnevskiy out of the lineup again. It was a nice break for Olsen considering he’d barely played 30 games over the first four months of his hockey season, only to turn pro and see himself in thirty games in barely half that time. He’s a top-notch prospect but needs some time to hone his skills. His footwork needs help and his explosiveness isn’t there. With time, he’ll become accustomed to working the puck and making decisions under duress and at higher speeds. He struggles in those areas at times. But he’s good in smaller doses and Bill Peters is confident enough in Olsen to use him regularly on the second PK-pair. He’s also been getting time intermittently on the power play.
— Hannu Toivonen holds 4 of the IceHogs victories over their current and season-long 5-game winning streak. In those four wins, Toivonen has stopped 134 shots for a 94.4% save percentage and a 1.96 goals against average.
To give you an idea of how far Toivonen has come since in the last month or so, on February 21 he had a GAA of 3.09 and save percentage of .892. Toivonen’s record at that point was 10-11-0-3.
After Wednesday’s win in Cleveland, Toivonen is 18-14-1-4 with a 2.89 gaa and .907 save percentage. While he’s struggled in stretches and had a few epic meltdowns, Toivonen’s quietly built a solid season. Since Christmas he’s 13-9-1-1 with a 2.75 gaa and .916 save percentage.
— On December 30th, Alec Richards was 7-8-1-1 with a .908 save percentage and goals against at 2.69.
Today, Richards is 15-18-3-1 with a .899 save percentage and 2.88 gaa. He was ridden pretty good from just before the All-Star break until then end of February, appearing twelve times with a record of 4-6-2-0; 2.86 gaa and .899 save percentage.
— When the IceHogs lose, they typically do so in style.
This season, when the team surrenders more than 3 goals, their record is 3-23-2-0. In those 28 games, they’ve been outscored 136 to 71 (-65).
— We talk of Brandon Pirri a lot because he’s really the lone natural center ice prospect here with a realistic shot at making a difference at the next level. It’s been a long, rough season for Pirri.
Pirri has just 3 goals over his last 26 games; two of those coming last Saturday night against Milwaukee. Going further back, Pirri has 5 goals over his last 46 games and four of those five came in two contests. Before then and to start his first professional season, Pirri scored five times in his first eighteen games. He is more of a set up guy than a scorer, but he does have a nice wrist shot he should stand to get off more often.
FEW quick Blackhawks notes:
Today was Bob Pulford’s 75th birthday.
David Pacan, the center ice prospect sent to Florida in the Skille-Frolik and moving parts deal, turns 20 today.
Former Blackhawks First-Round pick (1989-#6 overall), Adam Bennett, turned 40 on Wednesday. Bennett was a huge (6-4, 215) blue line product who managed just 69 games in the NHL (for someone drafted so high) before vanishing from the pro hockey scene a mere seven years after his eighteenth birthday. 21 of those games came with the Hawks. He went on to Edmonton to play another 48. Bennett now runs his own hockey business in southern Ontario called 3-on-3 Hockey by Adam Bennett. As for the ’89 Draft, it wasn’t a spectacular opening round. Bill Guerin went one spot ahead of Bennett to New Jersey and Doug Zmolek was picked by Minnesota one spot after the Hawks. Its not like the Hawks scouted Europe so much in those days, so you can’t really harp on the Bobby Holik oversight too much. There were some gems in later rounds the Hawks missed out on though. Unless you have a different recollection of the careers of Michael Speer, Tommi Pullola or Milan Tichy. The aforementioned Bob Pulford leaned towards the D-position, using his first six picks to take four defenseman. In the third round, a guy I always rooted for, Bob Kellogg for no other reason than his name simply sounded like a bruising defenseman’s, was taken by the Hawks. And Chicago fans can always take some solace in knowing the Hawks selected Kellogg five spots ahead of a guy who would go on to become one of the greatest defenseman of all-time, Nicklas Lidstrom. Two guys swept up between those two…. Louie Debrusk and Blair Atcheynum, would eventually become Hawks at some points in their respective careers though.