It’s a little early to panic, but the IceHogs are off to an auspicious start to the season on their home ice.
On Saturday, a crowd of 4,715 witnessed the IceHogs’ fifth-consecutive home ice loss, a 3-0 shutout to the Peoria Rivermen. The defeat drops Rockford’s record to 1-5-0-0 at home and 5-7-1-0 overall.
Rockford now sits firmly in 5th and last place in the Midwest division, three points behind the Chicago Wolves, who have played just four of their thirteen games at Allstate Arena so far. The IceHogs are also four points behind 3rd place Milwaukee, who have two games in hand on Rockford.
“When we’re on the road, we’re just relaxed. We just go out and play our game. We’re tight and a little unsure of ourselves at home,” IceHogs captain Brandon Segal said after Saturday’s loss.
“It’s kind of frustrating because obviously these are the points we need right now and we’re not getting them.”
The IceHogs came into Saturday’s contest off a stunning 7-6 loss at Peoria on Friday. Stunning, because Rockford led that game 6-4 with a minute and change left in regulation only allow two quick Phil McRae goals and then to lose the game in overtime on a questionable goaltender interference non-call that left the IceHogs incensed.
Peoria’s offense picked up where it left off Friday night and got going early when T.J. Hensick gave the Rivermen an early 1-0 lead. Brett Sterling skating down the far half wall found Hensick streaking to along the goal line to the net, stringing a pass through two IceHogs defenders. Hensick held the pass and skated around a weak stick-check attempt by Alexander Salak and roofed an easy nonchalant backhander far right corner 2:54 into the game.
Halfway through the period the IceHogs got their best chance when Dylan Olsen sprung Brandon Pirri on a clean breakaway. Pirri tried to go high over the glove shoulder on 6 foot 7 inch goaltender Ben Bishop but Pirri’s attempt was easily fought off.
Rockford had thought they’d drawn even early in the second, but the goal was waved off when referee Joe Sullivan ruled Brandon PIrri had kicked the puck in.
“[The puck] hit his foot and went in,” IceHogs head coach Ted Dent said later. “Looking at the tape, I don’t think [Pirri] intentionally kicked it. I think he missed it with his stick and tried to turn, react, but it wasn’t a kicking motion.”
Rivermen goaltender Ben Bishop had mishandled a puck out in the low slot in front of a hard checking Pirri. The Rockford forward soon found himself with the puck in his skates and nothing but an empty Peoria net in front of him. But Pirri didn’t have enough time to right his stick on the puck after hitting his skate and the goal was disallowed.
Peoria took at 2-0 lead at the 14:00 mark when Brett Sonne picked a rebound from Salak’s left skate and slammed that puck into the back of the cage. A Dylan Olsen interference penalty had just expired. The play broke down when Andrew Shaw, Ryan Stanton and Shawn Lalonde all chased Adam Cracknell behind Salak’s net. The puck came out to Cade Fairchild at the point. Fairchild unleashed a slap shot Salak did stop, but couldn’t challenge Sonne’s second chance opportunity.
Alexander Salak and the IceHogs had trouble in both games this weekend dealing with the traffic Peoria brought to Rockford netminder. Friday night’s game was decided in overtime when winger Jay Barriball drove to the net hard on Salak, running the Hogs’ goaltender into the net in the process, allowing Adam Cracknell to end the game. Salak was furious and both he and coach Ted Dent were issued game misconducts for arguing with Friday’s referee, Mark Lemelin.
Rockford knew to expect lots of activity around their net but were unable to handle the Peoria attack once again.
“We worked on that last week in practice,” said defenseman Brian Connelly. “That’s kind of their (Peoria’s) go-to game plan. They want to disrupt the front of the net.”
Conversely, the IceHogs talked themselves of getting more bodies of their own to disrupt Ben Bishop, but that didn’t happen much either. Bishop stopped all 37 shots he faced and beat the IceHogs on Rockford ice for the second time this season. His biggest stop came in the third period on Andrew Shaw when Shaw fought hard to gain control of a rebound and get a shot off, but Bishop stoned him with the left pad to keep his team up 2-0.
“Bishop’s been good against us. He’s won both games in our building,” Dent said after the game. “We talked about getting traffic at him, and to him. I didn’t think we had enough traffic. I didn’t think we were in his crease enough.”
Brett Sterling sealed the Rivermen victory at 12:32 of the third period when he won a scramble in Salak’s crease to net his 9th goal of the season, this coming on Peoria’s fifth power play of the contest.
Rockford’s power play went 0 for 6 on the night after picking up 2 on 6 chances Friday in Peoria. They dropped to 17th in the AHL (17.2%) overall with this performance. At home this season, the IceHogs are 4 for 30 (13.3%) with the man advantage. Brian Connelly knows his unit needs to improve.
“Our power play isn’t exactly clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Connelly. “We’re trying to get shots to the net and get those ugly goals. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to shoot from everywhere and try to create offense in front of the net.”
Of his team’s early home ice struggles, Dent mentioned more guys need to step up.
“I think it’s just a mindset,” Dent said. “Overall at home we’ve had games where we don’t have enough guys going on the same night. We talked about it before, you need 20 guys going at the same time, on the same night, to give yourself a chance to win in this league. So if you only have fifteen or fourteen out of the twenty, it’s going to be tough. And most home games this year, we’ve had that.”
Rockford is off now until Wednesday night, when Oklahoma City visits the BMO Harris Bank Center for the first of two times this season. Puck drop is 7:05.
Saturday night’s lines and defenseman combos:
Jeremy Morin – Brett McLean – Brandon Segal
Andrew Shaw – Brandon Pirri – Ben Smith
Philippe Paradis – Byron Froese – Jimmy Hayes
Brandon Bollig – X – Rob Klinkhammer
Brian Connelly – Brian Fahey
Ryan Stanton – Shawn Lalonde
Joe Lavin – Dylan Olsen
Scratches: Kyle Beach (shoulder), Chris DiDomenico (healthy) and Pete Leblanc (healthy)
–Blackhawks GM and Vice President Stan Bowman, along with V.P. Al MacIssac were in attendance for the game.
–Also on hand in Rockford Saturday were scouts from the Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. Former Blackhawk Duane Sutter was representing the Oilers.
–Before Saturday’s contest, the IceHogs hosted an alumni game between former IceHogs (UHL era) and the Blackhawks alumni. On the Hawks’ side, Troy Murray, Cliff Koroll, Phil Russell, Grant Mulvey, Reg Kerr, Dave Mackey, Steve Poapst (IceHogs current assistant coach), Brian Noonan and Reid Simpson participated. Since the rosters were heavily lopsided, 17-12 in Chicago’s favor, Reid Simpson was traded after the first period (played two halves) to the IceHogs’ side. Simpson actually played for Rockford during the UHL days in the 2004-05 season. About 700 fans showed up to watch the game which started three hours before the Hogs-Rivermen contest.
–Dent on the shaky start: “Our guys just have to get consistent. We’re not consistent right now. We play one good game, then we have a bad game. We have to string three or four games together where we play good every game and give ourselves a chance.
—Shawn Lalonde cup-checked Rivermen forward Stefan Della-Rovere at 16:15 of the opening period. Della-Rovere complained of the Lalonde’s questionable stick work to the referee during the play and approached Lalonde after the ensuing whistle. Lalonde then repeatedly made motion with his gloves as to challenge Della-Rovere to a fight. Della-Rovere is the player Kyle Beach was fighting when Beach dislocated his shoulder two weeks ago. Lalonde and Beach are close friends. Of course, Della-Rovere is nursing an injured hand, suffered in that fight with Beach, so it was kind of a cheap taunting-like offering by Lalonde, knowing Della-Rovere wouldn’t drop his gloves.
–Speaking of Beach, no official update on Beach at this point. He’s still officially out indefinitely with an upper body injury. He has not had surgery to this point.
—Ryan Stanton delivered the biggest check of the night when he lowered his boom on two-time and former IceHog Derek Nesbitt just before the Lalonde-Rovere incident. Not sure if it was related or not, probably, but Nesbitt left the game shortly thereafter and did not return.
–Rockford outshot Peoria 37-28 in the game and 15-7 in the final frame.
–Hogs power play units were this: Brett McLean, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Segal with Connelly and Fahey. Second unit was Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw and Ben Smith with Connelly (staying) and Lalonde.
–There was a funny moment early in the third. With Rockford on a crucial power play down 2-0 and set up in the Peoria zone, Ben Bishop lost his stick after fighting off a Lalonde blast. Defenseman Brett Ponich skated by his goaltender’s stick four times without once at least trying to shovel the stick back to his netminder. The Hogs held the zone but couldn’t capitalize on the vulnerable goaltender.
–Interesting note on Dent’s decision to dress seven defenseman in this game as he did Friday in Peoria; scratching both Pete Leblanc and Chris DiDomencio in the process. Ben Youds didn’t play a lot. He got some additional shifts after Dylan Olsen took his second penalty of the game (boarding Jonathan Cheechoo then for interference, or mauling, in the second period) midway through the second period. But Olsen was back in the regular rotation for the third. Neither Leblanc nor DiDomenico bring the speed needed to match Peoria’s game, but Rockford isn’t stellar down the middle to begin with. McLean, Pirri and Froese took turns with Bollig and Klinkhammer when the fourth line had its number called.
–Speaking of Rob Klinkhammer, he’s still stuck on 5 points – the five points he accumulated in two games the opening weekend of the season. So that’s no points now for Klinkhammer in his last ten games. The drop to the fourth line certainly sends a message. Klinkhammer’s game is skating, aggressive forechecking and getting in lanes to block shots and intercept passes in the defensive zone. He’s been largely unnoticeable in the past few weeks save for when he’s rushing a shot on goal or passing up on an opportunity to shoot. It’s apparent he’s struggling mightily with his confidence right now. He’s a key player who needs to get going if Rockford is to be successful on a consistent basis.
—Chris DiDomenico has a goal and two assists in 9 games. The slight center icemen is still having some trouble transitioning to the pro game. He got off to a good start and was he beneficiary of getting Jeremy Morin on his wing when Morin returned to action in the third game of the season. DiDomenico and Morin exhibited some good chemistry off the bat, but that wore off it appeared in the last week of October and now DiDomenico is again watching games in a suit and tie. When asked about DiDomenico’s start, Ted Dent likened it to last season.
“[DiDomenico] did have a good start to the season, the first five or six games,” Dent noted. “Same thing happened last year too. He started with us last year and eventually he got sent down to Toledo. He’s got skill. For him, it’s just a speed thing and a strength thing. He’s a smaller body. He’s just got to get his nose dirty and stay involved to be successful.”