By Chris Block
A complete 60-minute effort was all the IceHogs needed to defeat second-place Milwaukee on Saturday night.
Rockford improved their season record to 11-14-1-2 on goals from Pete Leblanc, Brandon Bollig and two from the team’s leading scorer, Brandon Pirri.
Rockford’s power play entered Saturday night’s game having scored just 3 times in its past 40 chances. Against the Milwaukee Admirals, the IceHogs power play scored 3 times on 5 chances Saturday. Two of those goals came off the stick of Brandon Pirri, the other was set up by Pirri.
“I thought our power play really helped us out tonight,” head coach Ted Dent said after a week of working with that unit in practices. “We finally figured that out.”
Pete Leblanc capitalized on an early power play opportunity when he snuck into the low slot and chipped a feed from Brandon Pirri past Milwaukee Admirals starter Jeremy Smith. Ben Smith was in front of the net disturbing Smith’s vision as well on the play, putting the Hogs up 1-0 at 10:35 of the opening period. The assist marked Pirri’s 50th professional helper (49 AHL, 1 NHL)
Two minutes later, after failing to convert on a second power play, Brett McLean was called for roughing, giving Milwaukee its first chance with the man advantage. The Admirals wasted little time converting as defenseman Jonathan Blum whizzed a shot from the left point past Carter Hutton’s glove to tie the game at 1-1. Admirals forward Ryan Thang was in front battling for position with Joe Lavin, and Hutton was late reacting to Blum’s shot.
The opening period was sloppy at times but Rockford carried the bulk of the play and held a 19-11 shot advantage after twenty minutes. While Hutton probably would have liked to have the Blum tally back, he came up with two huge saves in the final three minutes of the opening frame to hold the score even heading into the first intermission.
Second period let downs have been an issue for the Hogs all season, especially at home. But Saturday night was different.
“Our attention to detail was good,” Dent said. “I thought it was probably one of the most complete games we’ve had this year.”
Brandon Pirri said the message on Saturday was simple, “We really wanted to focus on playing a full 60 and taking it shift by shift.”
Milwaukee continued to make costly mistakes as the second period got underway.
With Gabriel Bourque in the box for interference, Pirri, in his 100th game as a pro, potted his first goal of the night with a one-timer primed perfectly by Rostislav Olesz. With the Hogs set up in Milwaukee’s zone, Brian Connelly dished the puck to Olesz in atop the left circle. Olesz fed Pirri just out of the reach of defenseman Scott Ford before Pirri blasted the one-timer into an open near side of the Admirals’ goal.
Slashing was the theme of the night and practically every one on the ice was getting away with it since first-year AHL referee Darcy Burchell was overlooking many obvious ones. Brandon Bollig had his twig slashed in half by Michael Latta and hurled one half of the splintered shaft across the ice in disgust, earning Bollig a two minute unsportsmanlike minor. Luckily for Bollig, the Hogs’ penalty kill was able to shut Milwaukee down this time.
Shortly after Bollig stepped out of the box, he found a dance partner in Zack Stortini. The two willing combatants fought for the second time in a week.
Hutton made a huge stop with 8:43 to go in the middle frame after a terrible Joe Lavin turnover to preserve his team’s 2-1 lead.
Bollig ended a personal 37-game goal scoring drought at 15:35 of the second period when he let a shot rip from the top of the left circle and clearly caught Jeremy Smith by surprise. Bollig beat Smith cleanly to the short side.
“It’s just one of those shots, you kind of just want to throw it on net and it happened to go in,” Bollig said of his drought-busting tally. “But I’ve been getting a lot of chances lately, and it’s just not falling my way. And then finally it does. It’s a good feeling.”
The goal deflated the Admirals and sent Rockford into the third period with a 3-1 lead but not before Carter Hutton had to stand tall after a turnover that left Taylor Beck in all alone in the Hogs end but he was stuffed by Hutton.
“After that first period, it was a good period,” said defenseman Dylan Olsen. “Coming into the second, we knew we had to start burying some goals and bearing down on our chances. And hopefully build up even more momentum going into the third.”
A Milwaukee goal was waved off with 42.4 seconds left in the second period when it was ruled the net popped off its moorings before the puck crossed the line. Gabriel Bourque thought he had a goal but after the referee consulted with the goal judge, it was ruled no goal.
The two sides traded chances early on in the third period but it wasn’t until a Rostislav Olesz dump-in hit a glass stanchion in the right corner and bounced out to the front of the net did the IceHogs strike. Brandon Pirri hustled to beat Jeremy Smith to the puck and with Smith out of position, Pirri gave Rockford a commanding 4-1 lead with 10:02 remaining in regulation.
“That one was a bit of a gift, a lucky break,” Pirri admitted. “We worked pretty hard at practice on our power play and having new looks at the net. It worked out for us.”
Jonathan Blum scored his second goal of the contest with 54.3 seconds left when he picked up a loose puck after Taylor Beck fanned on the original chance. With Hutton down from anticipating Beck’s shot, Blum was able to make the final score 4-2.
Hutton stopped 28 shots to earn his third win in six starts since being recalled on December 3rd. Hutton is 3-2-0-1 as an IceHog.
Pirri’s 12th and 13th goals lead all Hogs. Pirri now ranks 7th in the AHL is scoring with 31 points. Brian Connelly is 19th in the league in scoring (3g, 22a).
Rockford is now off until Wednesday when they host the Toronto Marlies for their lone visit of the season.
Saturday night’s lines, combos and scratches:
Andrew Shaw – Brandon Pirri – Brandon Segal
Rostislav Olesz – Peter Leblanc – Jimmy Hayes
Brett McLean – David Gilbert – Ben Smith
Philippe Paradis – Byron Froese – Brandon Bollig
Ryan Stanton – Brian Connelly
Dylan Olsen – Brian Fahey
Joe Lavin – Shawn Lalonde
Scratches: Ben Youds, Rob Flick, Jeremy Morin (suspension gm 2 of 3), Kyle Beach (right shoulder), Alexander Salak (left leg)
Power play I: Olesz-Pirri-Smith w/ Connelly and Leblanc
Power play II: Segal-McLean-Hayes w/Lavin and Fahey (Lalonde as well)
–Jeremy Morin left the BMO following Saturday’s game with his sticks and equipment under his arm and in route to Chicago. Morin will be recalled by the Blackhawks this morning, in time for tonight’s game at the United Center with the Calgary Flames.
–Ted Dent indicated no change in the status of goaltender Alexander Salak.
“He still has the lower body injury. I can’t see him being back until at least after the holidays.”
–IceHogs play Sunday and then again on Wednesday to host the Toronto Marlies. The players then get a four day Christmas break. They’ll reconvene Monday the 26th for a morning skate before traveling to Milwaukee for a game that night against the Admirals.
–Byron Froese picked up an assist on the Bollig goal. That’s Froese’s first AHL assist (17gp).
IceHogs consecutive games without a goal: Ryan Stanton (38), Philippe Paradis (22), Brian Fahey (10), David Gilbert (7), Jimmy Hayes (6), Byron Froese (5), Brett McLean (5), Shawn Lalonde (4), Rostislav Olesz (3), Dylan Olsen (3), Ben Smith (3)