By Chris Block
Arriving at the quarter-mark of the season (19th of 76 games) on Saturday night, the divisional last-place Rockford IceHogs were riding high as they welcomed the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Barons.
Rockford was looking to draw to an even .500 record and continue to build momentum off back-to-back home wins, 6-3 and 7-3, this week over San Antonio and Peoria.
The Barons rode the four hour bus ride in from Grand Rapids after holding on for a 5-4 win over the Griffins on Friday night.
In a tightly-checked and hard-fought affair, Oklahoma City prevailed in Rockford Saturday night by a 3-1 score and the IceHogs now find themselves two games under the .500 mark.
“I think they played a good defensive game against us,” alternate captain Brian Fahey said after the loss.
“We had a hard time getting to their net. Its not that we didn’t have chances, we just had a tough time getting to the second and third chances.”
After an evenly matched opening twenty minutes, Oklahoma City got on the board at 1:06 of the second on controversial goal call by referee Dave Lewis.
IceHogs goaltender Alexander Salak fiercely disputed the call, feeling the puck had not crossed the line. However, further review proved the puck did and the Barons’ Philippe Cornet, the AHL’s leading goal scorer, had his 14th of the season.
“I thought we had a great first period,” said defenseman Dylan Olsen.
“Second period we were a little off.”
The scored stayed 1-0 until 2:41 of the third period when Cornet netted his 15th goal, set up brilliantly by winger Ryan Keller for the easy put-home to give the Barons the 2-0 advantage.
This tally came seconds after the IceHogs’ Brandon Bollig squandered a golden opportunity to tie the game at the other end when he missed an open side by shooting a puck through Oklahoma City goaltender David LeNeveu’s crease, missing the net entirely.
Brian Connelly gave Rockford life late on a power play when he unleashed a slap shot from the right point through traffic to trim the Barons’ lead to 2-1 with 7:23 to go. Wingers Jeremy Morin and Brandon Segal obstructed LeNeveu’s vision as Brett McLean set Connelly up for the shot.
With his team down 2-1, Ted Dent pulled Alexander Salak from his net for the extra attacker with a minute and a half to go in regulation. Twenty seconds later, Ryan O’Marra was the benefactor of a Rockford turnover and sealed the Barons’ win emphatically with an empty-net tally at 18:57 of the period.
Despite the one goal, it was another night when the IceHogs’ power play let them down at home; early on when it counted most anyway. In all, Rockford was 1 for 6 on the power play on Saturday.
“I don’t think we were at the top of our game tonight,” Brian Fahey said. “And we could have had a little more grit down low and sustained pressure.”
Back in the second period, 15 seconds after Cornet’s first goal, Barons’ center Ryan O’Marra was tagged for a 4-minute high-sticking infraction. The IceHogs didn’t generate a single quality scoring chance during those four minutes.
After the game, head coach Ted Dent agreed the four minute Oklahoma City kill was the turning point in the contest.
“Yeah, I think we lost a little momentum, definitely,” Dent said.
“We didn’t really generate a lot of opportunities on it. Yeah, it was disappointing.”
While the four minute power play was a missed opportunity, Rockford also failed to muster much of anything on a 5-on-4 advantage on a fresh sheet of ice to start the third period. And Philippe Cornet’s second goal came 41 seconds after that Hogs’ power play expired.
“We missed some opportunities that we should have buried,” Fahey said. “But you’ve got to give them credit. They played a great game.”
Ted Dent summed up the loss, pointing to the positives gained from it.
“It was a good hockey game. They’re the second best team in the league right now, they’re tied for the second-most points. It was a good challenge and a good opportunity for us to gage ourselves against the best in the league.
“It was basically a 2-1 hockey game with an empty-netter,” Dent continued. “So, I thought we did well. I think if we’re on our game and we have a few more guys going, than we did, I think we can beat that team.”
–Alexander Salak continued his improved play of late, turning aside 25 Barons’ chances. In his last 4 appearances, Salak has stopped 77 of 85 shots (90.6%) and has a 2.45 goals against average.
–The loss drops Rockford’s record to 8-10-1-0. That’s a hair better than they were a year ago (7-10-0-2) through 19 games.
However, the difference is this year the team is trending upward at this mark instead of downward. Rockford had lost 5 their last 6 through 19 games in 2010-11.
In their last five games played in the current season, Rockford has posted a record of 3-2-0-0, with one of those wins coming via the shootout. They’re also a plus-4 (19gf, 15ga) in the goal differential department over the last five games.
While their home record is downright pitiful when you look at it (3-7-0-0), they’ve played three of their best home games all season this week.
Still, down two games below five hundred, the IceHogs must make the most of this current five game homestand (2-1-0-0 so far) and current stretch of 7 of 8 games on home ice.
After Christmas, the IceHogs play 9 of 10 on the road. While they’re a better team record-wise on the road (5-3-1-0) right now, they don’t want to be at or under the .500 mark when they hit Milwaukee on December 26th.
–Absent from the ice during the last two-plus minutes of the game was the newest IceHog, Rostislav Olesz.
Olesz came into the game with 8 points (3g, 5a) in 4 games. Saturday night was not a good night for Olesz, however. In his first experience of the season with 3 games in 4 nights, Olesz lacked the explosive step he has at this level and was noticeably slow in the third period.
Dent said he planned, but couldn’t use Olesz in the final minutes when his team was trying to tie the game.
“He was definitely tired,” Dent explained. “He came off his last shift a little early, right before we pulled the goalie. He was supposed to go back out but he wasn’t ready, because he had to catch his breath.”
This week was Rockford’s second experience of 3 games in 4 days. Two weeks ago, they played a rare Wednesday afternoon game at Grand Rapids, followed by a home and home with Peoria, Friday and Saturday. Olesz was still up with the Hawks when those games were contested.
Looking ahead, Rockford will play its first 3-in-3 (three games in three days) next weekend (Dec 2-4), and again the following weekend (Dec 9-11). And that’s followed immediately followed by another 3-in-4 (Dec 14-17). So the schedule is just beginning to get rough.
“It’s a learning experience for our guys, three games in four nights,” Dent says. “The two points on Wednesday are just as important as the two points on Saturday. And the next two weekends we have three (games) in three (nights) both weekends. So, we have to be prepared for those.”
–Next up for Rockford will be Lake Erie next Friday night at BMO Harris Bank Center.
The IceHogs have Sunday off before beginning four days of practices on Monday.
The Lake Erie Monsters (9-9-1-1) will host the Houston Aeros at home in Cleveland before traveling to face Rockford on Friday. It will be the first of four meetings between the Hogs and Monsters this season. Rockford won’t play in Cleveland until the second-to-last weekend of the season, back-to-back nights, April 6 & 7.
Lake Erie is 3-4-1-0 on the road, which is the good news.
The bad news is two former IceHogs are now Monsters, and they’re coming in on a roll.
Hugh Jessiman has posted a goal in each of his last four games, and on a total of seven shots.
Evan Brophey, who signed with the Avalanche during the off season, has a goal in each of his past two games and also managed his first career hat-trick for Lake Erie back on 11/11/11 against San Antonio. Brophey has 7 goals in all through 20 games. That’s three short of the 10 he scored in 67 games with the IceHogs last season.
Defenseman Mike Brennan, the Boston College grad, and former IceHog and Blackhawks draft pick, is now a regular on the Lake Erie blue line. Brennan spent last season with the Toronto Marlies after spending his first two pro seasons (2008-10) with Rockford.
–Ted Dent’s lines, combos and scratches on Saturday night.
Jeremy Morin – Brett McLean – Brandon Segal
Rostislav Olesz – Brandon Pirri – Andrew Shaw
Philippe Paradis – Pete Leblanc – Jimmy Hayes
Brandon Bollig – David Gilbert – Rob Klinkhammer
Ryan Stanton – Brian Fahey
Joe Lavin – Brian Connelly
Dylan Olsen – Ben Youds
Power play units
1-Olesz, Pirri, Shaw with Connelly and Youds
2-Morin, McLean, Segal with Connelly and Leblanc
Scratches: Kyle Beach (shoulder), Shawn Lalonde and Byron Froese
–Lalonde was a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game (Fri vs Peoria being his first of the season). He is two games shy of hitting 100 pro (AHL) regular season games. Lalonde (98gp, 6g, 30a) also appeared in three playoff games in 2010 against Texas (four game TX sweep). Ben Youds was moved into Lalonde’s spot in the lineup on Friday. This coming after the 6-3 win Wednesday night vs San Antonio. With Youds in on Friday in the 7-3 win over Peoria, coach Ted Dent kept that lineup intact for Saturday’s contest.
—Byron Froese has sat out the past five games. Early on in the season Froese was seeing time at the point on the power play, in addition to mostly third line center duties. Pete Leblanc is currently fulfilling those roles. Froese is without a point in 11 games this season. Last season with his junior team, Red Deer, Froese posted 43 goals and 81 points in 70 regular season contests, and another 5 goals and 7 points in 9 playoff games.
—Ben Youds was a lucky guy in the opening minute of the game when he drew a tripping call on Gilbert Brule. Youds made an ill-advised attempt to carry the puck out in front of his own net with two Barons’ hounding him. But Brule managed to trip Youds in the process of stripping the Hogs defenseman of the puck, so no harm done.
— After the game, head coach Ted Dent expressed his frustration with the four minute power play opportunity in the second.
“I hate four minute power plays,” Dent said. “They’re just too long. Unless you score two goals, if you don’t, usually you just score one goal, it’s a downer and it gives momentum to the team that killed it off.”
—Dylan Olsen on Rockford’s home ice 2nd period struggles:
“You can win or lose a game in the second period,” Olsen said after Saturday night’s loss. “You obviously saw that tonight, they got that one goal and we tried to come back in the third. We just have to bear down here and start playing a full sixty minutes.”
–Saturday marked only the second time this season that the IceHogs have given up 3 goals in a game (6x) and lost. When Rockford gives up 3 goals or less in a game, they’re 7-3-0-0 (one of those wins came via the shootout). And when they’ve surrendered 4 or more; 1-7-1-0
–Red-hot Brandon Pirri was held off the scoresheet Saturday, ending a five-game point streak (6g, 4a). It was just the 3rd time in the past 12 games Pirri’s been held without a point (12gp, 8g, 8a)
–Alexander Salak was an interesting choice to start Saturday’s contest considering he was pulled in OKC’s previous visit on Nov 16. Salak surrendered four straight Barons’ tallies before getting the yank. Alec Richards wound up taking the loss in that one, letting in a Ryan Keller goal in the third period. Richards stopped 5 of 6 shots in that third period that saw Rockford score three unanswered to tie the game, only to give up the game-winner to Keller 58 seconds after tying it.
Salak though was in net for both home wins, Wednesday and Friday and has now started the last six IceHogs’ home games.
–Scouts from San Jose, Anaheim and NY Islanders were in attendance on Saturday. Dirk Graham (Sharks) and Trent Yawney (Ducks) watched the IceHogs on both Wednesday and Saturday. Rick Kehoe of the Rangers scouted Wednesday’s game versus San Antonio (Panthers affiliate).
–Right now Rockford’s penalty kill is ranked 29th in the AHL (67-89, 75.3%). Only San Antonio’s (71.4%), the PK the IceHogs power play went 3 for 8 against on Wednesday, is worse.
–The IceHogs PP is marginally better, 19 for 94 (20.2%), good for 10th overall
–Saturday’s win elevated Oklahoma City’s road record to an impressive 8-2-0-0. (The IceHogs road record is 5-3-1-0). The Barons came into the contest tied for the best record in the West Division, and Western Conference overall, with Abbotsford (13-6-1-0, 27pts). Of course, with the win, the Barons claim sole possession of each of those distinctions. Interesting note though, Abbotsford road record is a staggering 11-2-0-0 as compared to their home record, 2-4-1-0. Those road numbers are even more striking when you consider Abbotsford’s closest opponent (OKC) is 1,600 miles away. Abbotsford hits Rockford for the first of two times this season next Saturday night.