Rockford extended its season-long winning streak to four games on Sunday in a 2-1 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals before of a sparse crowd of 3,938 on “Blackhawks Night” at BMO Harris Bank Center.
Carter Hutton was spectacular in goal once again, capping off seven days that will assuredly earn him AHL Player of the Week honors. Hutton stopped 33 shots against the Admirals in route to a 4-0-0-0 week in which Hutton allowed a total of five goals against.
“We got great goaltending tonight,” said IceHogs head coach Ted Dent. “It’s a nice way to finish off the weekend.”
It was a weekend that saw the IceHogs win three one-goal games, the first two coming in a home-and-home versus interstate rival Chicago Wolves. Despite an overall record (18-21-1-3) that still seats Rockford 3rd from the bottom team percentage of points wise in the league, the IceHogs have been good in games decided by a goal, 9-6-1-3.
That particular record hasn’t come around until of late for the young IceHogs. Rockford is 5-1-0-0 in their last six games decided by one goal. Two of those wins came in overtime.
“Earlier in the year, the one-goal games, the last five minutes of the game you just didn’t have a good feeling on the bench,” Dent said. “You felt like something bad was going to happen. And it was. It was always happening, bad. Now, I think there is a comfort level that we can defend a lead.”
The IceHogs got down early when a Jonathon Blum shot was tipped by center Aaron Marvin at the 5:49 mark of the first period. For Marvin, who was signed by the Admirals earlier in the day to a professional try-out contract, it was his first AHL goal in his first game with Milwaukee. Marvin plays for the Chicago Express (based out of Hoffman Estates’ Sears Centre) and has scored 8 goals in 32 games with them this season.
“[The shot] was coming to my low-blocker side,” Hutton said after his team-leading 9th win of the season. “I had a good angle on the puck when he shot, then I kind of lost it. I don’t know if it hit a stick or a skate and it redirected over my glove side. That’s just hockey. We score too many ourselves like that to complain about it. That’s just the way she goes.”
Rockford struck back later in the period 36 seconds into their first power play chance of the night. With the IceHogs set up in Milwaukee’s zone, Brian Connelly fed a soft pass to Brandon Pirri for a one-timer from the right face off circle that beat Admirals’ starter Jeremy Smith clean over the left glove shoulder to tie the game 1-1. The goal was Pirri’s 17th. Rostislav Olesz picked up the second assist.
Eight minutes into the second period, Pirri was left alone again in the same spot on the power play. This time, Brian Connelly first dished to Olesz who then found Pirri for another one-timer and the same result.
“We’re just trying to get shots,” Pirri said after the win. “I was just fortunate (Milwaukee) left me alone for a bit there. And I just happened to make the most of it.”
The IceHogs power play went 2 for 5 on the night and Pirri’s second tally would stand as the game-winner. Rockford is now 14-2-0-1 when carrying a lead into the third period.
Pirri’s 18th goal of the season and current 4-game scoring streak (3 goals, 2 assists) have bumped him up to 8th in the AHL in scoring with 41 points in 41 games.
“It’s easy when you’re getting teed up by Cons and Oly,” Pirri said. “They’re great players. It makes my job really easy to shoot the puck.”
Though Pirri and the power play provided the essential offense, the story of the night was Carter Hutton and the IceHogs defense. Dent has been waiting for one of his goaltenders to grab the net all season and Hutton has done so at least for the moment.
And the timing could not be better for Hutton himself as the injured Alexander Salak is possible to return this coming weekend or right after the Jan 29-Feb 2 all-star break.
“Yeah, for sure,” Dent responded when asked if Hutton was making a clear case to stay in Rockford when Salak returns. “He’s been the biggest difference for us probably as far as results over the last ten games, for sure.”
Hutton started all three games over the weekend and showed no signs of fatigue as he battled through his third game in as many nights.
After the game, he passed the credit onto his teammates.
“Just a great team effort, again,” Hutton said. “The boys are really helping me out, letting me see the puck. Things are going well right now. Our team defense is really coming into play here in the second half.”
Rockford’s penalty kill has been nothing short of amazing as well. The IceHogs penalty killers have strung together 27-consecutive successful kills dating back to the first period of the Jan 11 game against the Wolves at Allstate Arena. Before that, the IceHogs penalty kill managed to stop only 22 of 37 of the opposition’s opportunities with the man advantage.
“A lot of credit goes to Steve Poapst and Ben Simon,” Dent explained emphasizing the importance he’s placed on his team’s ability to kill off penalties. “Instead of one of them taking care of it, we put two guys on it. We had a meeting about six or seven games ago, we decided as a staff they would tag-team it and change the mentality a little bit and really honed in on some video and it has paid off.”
Coming into Sunday’s game, Milwaukee had scored at least one power play goal in each of its past 8 contests. The Admirals went 0 for 3 in Sunday’s game in Rockford.
Sunday’s win and the IceHogs recent run of wins suddenly brings the team within 3 games of the coveted .500 record. Rockford is 6-3-0-1 in their last ten games and now 18-21-1-3 overall.
They have also won three straight on home ice and brought their dismal home record (9-11-0-1) to within two games of .500.
Rockford’s special teams in particular have paid huge dividends at home recently. The Penalty Kill has also been great simply at home, stopping the visiting teams last 20 power play chances at the BMO.
In their past seven home contests, the IceHogs power play is 8 for 31 (25.8%) and the team is 4-2-0-1 in that stretch.
Brandon Pirri says his team has never lost sight of their ultimate goal – to make the playoffs.
“We’ve been looking at the playoffs since day one,” Pirri said after his two-goal and first-star performance versus Milwaukee. “Even when we were in that little slump there. Our goal is to make the playoffs. We’re just trying to take it day-by-day and creep in there.”
The IceHogs are now off until Thursday, when they begin another string of three games in as many days in Charlotte for what will be the first of a back-to-back at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Hogs will then travel home to Rockford for another meeting with the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday, 7:05pm at BMO Harris Bank Center.
It is the time in the season when there are no easy games and those three leading into the AHL All-Star break won’t be any different. Charlotte (24-15-2-2), a good home ice team, leads the Midwest Division, twelve points above the IceHogs. Milwaukee, which Rockford will meet another eight times still this season, is second in the division but just six points ahead of the Hogs now in the Midwest division.
“We’re on a win streak and it’s a blast coming to the rink,” Pirri stated. “It’s a lot easier when you’re winning. The guys are upbeat and practices are fun. We’re just going to try to keep it going.”
–Sunday’s lines, combos and scratches
Jeremy Morin – Brandon Pirri – Byron Froese
Rostislav Olesz – Pete Leblanc – Brandon Segal
Brandon Bollig – Chris DiDomenico – Brandon Svendsen
Paul Zanette – Rob Flick – Philippe Paradis
Dylan Olsen – Brian Connelly
Ryan Stanton – Brian Fahey
Joe Lavin – Shawn Lalonde
Carter Hutton (backup: Alec Richards)
–Same lineup as Saturday night with the exception of Lavin sliding in on defense in place of Ben Youds. With that change, Olsen (paired with Youds vs Wolves) moved up with Connelly. Shawn Lalonde was paired with Connelly on Saturday.
Scratches: F-David Gilbert, D-Ben Youds, LW-Kyle Beach (right shoulder), G-Alexander Salak (ankle)…
As mentioned in Saturday night’s report, Salak’s return is imminent. He has been practicing for the past two weeks now and at one point this weekend was considered his target. Salak doesn’t have medical clearance to play in a game as of yet and its uncertain whether or not he will get that this coming week before the Hogs travel to Charlotte for back-to-back games with the Midwest Division leading Checkers on Thursday and Friday.
Power play I: Olesz-Pirri-Segal w/Leblanc and Connelly
Power play II: Morin-Froese-Flick w/Lavin and Lalonde
Penalty kill forwards: Bollig-Paradis, Segal-Froese, Leblanc-Svendsen
Penalty kill defense: Stanton-Fahey, Olsen-Lavin
–Ted Dent on Alexander Salak, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury since December 2nd:
“He’s getting close. I don’t know if he’ll be ready this coming weekend. Whenever he’s fully cleared and he feels a hundred percent then we’ll get him in there.”
–Carter Hutton, how about all the pressure involved in these close games of late?
“I think it’s a little more hectic for my parents watching at home,” responded the 26-year old native of Thunder Bay, Ontario. “They get a little more stressed out than I do.”
–About that penalty kill… Enough credit cannot be given to Brandon Segal, Byron Froese, Philippe Paradis and Brandon Bollig right now. Together with Ryan Stanton and Brian Fahey, these guys are the driving force, setting the example and leading the way for the IceHogs right now.
The points are not there right now for Segal, but the captain is playing his best hockey of the season.
Brian Fahey is playing through some aches and minor injuries right now, but he and Stanton are rock-solid and the best tandem right now in front of Hutton.
Bollig, who will turn 25 on the 31st of this month, has improved a lot since last season. During a first period penalty kill, Bollig blocked two Victor Barkley shots from the point, one with his torso, as second ticks later with his leg.
–Since getting benched on January 14 with ten minutes to go in the 3rd period at San Antonio, Brandon Pirri has 5 points (3g+2a) in four games. It should be noted, Pirri and linemate Jeremy Morin were both benched as the IceHogs were protecting a 1-0 lead. Two minutes after their last shift, San Antonio tied the game and moments later took the lead. Morin and Pirri still did not see the ice again. Rockford lost the game 2-1. The other winger on that line was Ben Smith and he did get a shift with 3:30 and then a minute remaining in the game.
–Pirri on making an impression and getting another chance some day with the Blackhawks:
“I’m just doing my job down here. The more the team wins, that sends a message to (the Blackhawks). I want to be a leader down here. If we’re winning down here, hopefully they’re going to see that and that I’m becoming a consistent all-around player.”
–Rockford has now won 3 in-a-row on home ice to bring their home record within 2 games of the .500 mark (9-11-0-1). Looking back at October, the IceHogs won their Opening Night game against Grand Rapids, and then lost their next six home games. Since then Rockford is 8-5-0-1 at the BMO.
–IceHogs are now 5-1-0-0 when wearing their alternate black sweaters at home.
–When Rockford is outshot they’re now 8-5-0-2. They were outshot by Milwaukee in this game 34-26.
–IceHogs record following a win is now 6-6-1-0.
–A Montreal Canadiens scout was following the IceHogs around this weekend. Sunday’s game was also scouted by the Sharks, Canucks, Islanders and Wild. The Predators also had two of their people on hand watching their prospects on Milwaukee. On Saturday in Chicago, the Sharks and Blue Jackets were represented in addition to the Canadiens. The Sharks scout is Dirk Graham, who is based locally and sees a lot of games in Chicago and Rockford.
–As part of “Blackhawks Night” former IceHogs head coach Mike Haviland along with Nick Leddy and Bryan Bickell were on hand to sign autographs for a select number of fans. Blackhawks anthem singer Jim Cornelison also delivered a sterling rendition of the national anthem.
The turnout for Sunday’s promotion was a disappointment but not surprising considering the names involved were not made official until two weeks ago.
–Milwaukee’s lines, combos and scratches on Sunday in Rockford
Brodie Dupont – Kyle Wilson – Juuso Puustinen
Jani Lajunen – Chris Mueller – Ryan Thang
Joel Champagne – Mark Van Guilder – Ryan Flynn
Chris Cahill – Aaron Marvin – Zack Stortini
Jonathon Blum – Teemu Laakso
Victor Bartley – Scott Ford
Scott Valentine – Jeff Foss
Jeremy Smith (backup: Atte Engren)
Milwaukee’s scratches: C-Blake Geoffrien, C-Ben Ryan, C-Michael Latta, RW-Taylor Beck, D-Tyler Sloan
Power play I: Dupont-Wilson-Puustinen w/ Bartley and Laaakso
Power play II: Thang-Mueller-Stortini w/ Blum and Laakso
Penalty kill forwards: Van Guilder-Flynn, Lajunen-Thang, Mueller-Wilson
Penalty kill defense: Bartley-Ford, Valentine-Ford, Blum-Laakso
–We’ll have much more on the IceHogs on Tuesday