By Chris Block
The Rockford IceHogs are running out of bodies and now games in their wild postseason bid.
On Friday they travelled to Cleveland, Ohio for a two-game set with the Lake Erie Monsters. Rockford entered the opener on Friday night trailing the 10th-place Monsters by two points in the Western conference with a game in hand on Lake Erie.
By any means, this weekend presented four points the IceHogs needed. And anything less than three would put Rockford’s postseason hopes in serious jeopardy.
With five games remaining and four teams to leapfrog in order to qualify for postseason, this weekend represented an opportunity to gain ground or jump past Lake Erie in the standings all together.
But after a 2-1 loss at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night, the IceHogs at best now can leave Cleveland this weekend in the exact predicament they arrived in.
And if they don’t beat Lake Erie in regulation on Saturday, they’ll bus home having lost ground in spite of getting two of a possible four points.
Rockford’s pursuit of a playoff spot has approached storybook proportions of late behind timely goal scoring, team defense, key contributions from ECHL signings, some luck and Carter Hutton.
The IceHogs have gone 20-8-1-3 since Jan 16th when they were a season-worst 7 games below the .500 mark.
However, the IceHogs still managed to stumble in recent weeks even in earning 11 of a possible 12 points in their six games coming into Friday night’s contest.
They allowed Milwaukee to tie their March 25 meeting with 32 seconds remaining and steal a pivotal point before Rockford eventually won in a shootout. Five days later at the BMO, Peoria scored twice in the third period, forcing Brian Fahey to tie the game with five seconds left in regulation. The IceHogs again won that game in a shooout, but Peoria, ahead of Rockford in the standings, still got a point. The next night San Antonio, the 9th seed at the time, scored late in the third period to send that game to overtime at the BMO. San Antonio wound up getting the better of Hutton in the shootout. And finally, last Sunday the IceHogs lost another third period lead in Milwaukee before winning again, as they did seven days earlier, in a shootout.
Injuries and suspensions have presented new hurdles.
Rostislav Olesz appeared to seriously injure his right leg near the end of the first period in Milwaukee last Sunday. At minimum, he is out for this weekend’s games. Olesz was Rockford’s hottest scorer at the time, carrying the offense last weekend with back-to-back two goal performances on Friday and Saturday. Olesz had not been finding the net much in the weeks beforehand and his timing was great since several others on the team have gone cold recently.
With the IceHogs down to a lineup of guys who haven’t been scoring goals of late including leading scorer Brandon Pirri (1 goal, 1 assist over the past 7 games), Pete Leblanc (0 goals-last 8 games), Brandon Svendsen (0 goals-last 11 games), Jeremy Morin and Philippe Paradis (each without a goal in 5 games), Matt Fornataro (1 goal-last 15 games), Chris DiDomenico (1 goal-last 45 games) and Byron Froese (0 goals-last 23 games he’s played) either one or more of these IceHogs would need to step up or there’d be trouble in Cleveland.
This didn’t happen on Friday.
Big, physical centerman Rob Flick sat out the game serving the first of his three-game suspension for his part in the brawl in Milwaukee last Sunday. Flick’s absence also turned out to be a greater loss than most would have figured.
Rockford has developed a physical intensity in recent weeks, led by Flick and Philippe Paradis who have been skating on a line together. Both love to chirp and play on the edge, which gets under the skin of their opponents. Their presence has brought another dimension and newfound identity to the team.
Without Flick, Paradis seemed lost on Friday night. Paradis skated with Phillip Danault and Brandon Svendsen to start. Instead of running around and creating havoc as he’s been on Flick’s wing in recent weeks, Paradis fell back into more of a finesse mode. And the rest of the team followed suit.
All three goals scored on Friday came during the final twenty minutes.
The game was a matchup of two of the AHL’s best goaltenders, Hutton for Rockford and Cedrick Desjardins for Lake Erie.
Regarding the offense, Rockford racked up 35 shots. Many of those were wrist shots Desjardins saw. There were very few determined drives to Lake Erie’s net. There were also a number of chances off the rush foiled by indecisive or silly passes that left IceHogs forwards with little real estate once they settled the pass down or in less of a position to score than from where the pass came from.
Desjardins leads the AHL in both goals against and save percentage categories. The undrafted 26-year old won a Memorial Cup with the Quebec Ramparts in 2006 and the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with Cincinnati in 2008 where he was named most valuable player. Desjardins is now property of the Colorado Avalanche after passing through the Canadiens and Lightning organizations.
Both Desjardins and Hutton were terrific through forty minutes, stopping a combined 50 shots in keeping the game scoreless.
Rockford’s best chance to score came with two minutes to go in the second period. Matt Fornataro was alone on the backdoor with Desjardins down and out but Fornataro shanked the puck wide of the goal and the game stayed scoreless heading into the second intermission.
Hutton’s leg pads were outstanding as he robbed Greg Mauldin, Patrick Rissmiller and former IceHogs Pete MacArthur and Evan Brophey with quick reflexes in key points of the game.
Lake Erie’s Ryan Stoa got his team on the board first at 1:56 of the third when his shot banked off Carter Hutton’s pad and into the back of the net. Stoa was sent in alone on a breakaway after stepping out of the penalty box (for getting shoved into Hutton late in the second period, sending Hutton flying back into his own net). Goaltender Cedrick Desjardins was credited with the lone assist on the play. It was also Stoa’s third goal in the three-game season series against the IceHogs.
Brian Fahey drew Rockford even 3:54 later when he skated up the right side and surprised Desjardins with a move from his forehand to backhand and beat Desjardin’s blocker to tie the game 1-1. The goal was Fahey’s 6th of the season and first on the road as an IceHog. Fahey had gone 42 consecutive road games without lighting the lamp. Fahey would now be considered the IceHogs hottest healthy goal-scorer as this was his third goal in the past seven games.
Rockford and Lake Erie traded chances for the next few minutes as Ted Dent shortened his bench in the third to roll just three lines.
With nine and half minutes on the clock, the Monsters retreated to their zone and both teams changed personnel. Lake Erie seemed unsure of who they wanted on the ice as the IceHogs stood around and waited for the Monsters to start their breakout.
When they did, the IceHogs responded as if their skates were in a sandbox. The Monsters breezed through the Rockford checkers in the neutral zone before Brad Malone accepted a Dean Strong pass in the Rockford zone and Malone ripped a shot past Hutton to regain the lead. The goal was Malone’s tenth of the season and second against the IceHogs in as many games.
Lake Erie outshot Rockford 36-35 in the contest and the AHL’s leading goaltender in save percentage and goal against average was a shade better than Rockford’s workhorse.
With the loss, Hutton’s record falls to 22-11-0-4. His 2.29 GAA is 8th best in the AHL while his 92.0%sv ranks 13th overall.
To say Rockford’s postseason hopes will be on the line Saturday night would be an understatement.
The IceHogs are now 0-3-0-0 vs Lake Erie this season and have been outscored 10-5. Desjardins is the third Monsters’ netminder to defeat Rockford in 2011-12. Chicago native Gerald Coleman did it at the BMO on December 2nd in the game Salak injured his ankle. And Trevor Cann got the better of Carter Hutton in a 4-3 Lake Erie win at the BMO on February 8.
Even had the IceHogs run the table in their final five games (starting Friday night), 86 points would not necessarily have guaranteed them a playoff spot in the West. Now the best they can do is 84 and they’ll need help to leapfrog this Lake Erie squad if need be.
To further explain how dire the situation is now; Rockford will host Charlotte twice next week, on Tuesday and in the IceHogs’ season finale next Saturday night. Currently, the IceHogs trail the Checkers, in the 8th spot, by 3 points. At first glance, it looks like the ‘Hogs can control their own destiny. However, the Checkers have two games in hand still and they won’t close their season until next Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. And Milwaukee, they are currently 2 points above Rockford in 10th place, but they also have two more games to play than the IceHogs do. The Admirals will visit the BMO on Friday night, but the IceHogs will need more than just a regulation victory that night to help them overtake Milwaukee.
The good news is Rockford got a measure of help on Friday as Grand Rapids (13th place, 74pts) and Houston (9th place, 79pts) both lost at home. Peoria also won their 3rd in a row beaching the Western Conference leading Barons in Oklahoma City. In fact, Rockford was the lone Western road team in action on Friday not to win their road game.
One thing that needs to be noted about this season’s IceHogs though is they do play in the most competitive division in the AHL. The IceHogs, Peoria, Chicago, Charlotte and Milwaukee make up the Midwest Division. Rockford is four games above .500 and still reside in last place in its division. The IceHogs’ 76 points are five more than the next-closest cellar-dwellers.
–Ted Dent’s lines, pairings & scratches Friday in Cleveland
Jeremy Morin – Brandon Pirri – Matt Fornataro
Philippe Paradis – Phillip Danault – Brandon Svendsen
Terry Broadhurst – Pete Leblanc – Chris DiDomenico
Wade Brookbank – Byron Froese – Kyle Beach
Ryan Stanton – Ben Youds
Joe Lavin – Brian Fahey
Eric Beier – Connor Goggin
Carter Hutton (backup: Alexander Salak)
Injuries: LW-Rostislav Olesz (lower-body)… LW-Paul Zanette (right shoulder)…. RW-Ben Smith (right hip/hernia)…
Scratches: G-Kent Simpson… D-Simon Danis-Pepin… C-Mark McNeill…
Suspended: C-Rob Flick… D-Shawn Lalonde
–Dent shortened his bench in the third. Notable benching was Kyle Beach, who got called for goaltender interference late in the first period and a blatant holding the stick call early in the second. Brookbank and Broadhurst barely played if at all in the third and for sure not after the first few minutes. Beach got a shift late in the third period.
–Those lines in the third period were Morin-Pirri-Fornataro, Svendsen-Leblanc-DiDomenico and Paradis-Danault-Froese. Keep in mind, the period started scoreless. Lake Erie scored two minutes in, Fahey answered at 5:50 and then Lake Erie regained the lead at 10:45. And Dent was rolling three lines and four defenseman (for the most part) that had a combined two goals in their past four games coming in. I’m sure Dent had his reasons for nailing Beach to the bench in the third period, but at 2 goals in his past 4 games, Beach is the closest to what you could consider a ‘hot’ Hog.
–Rostislav Olesz and Paul Zanette are both out indefinitely. Normally injured players don’t travel with the team but with the season on the line here this weekend, it’s a team camaraderie type deal. Olesz sat in the radio booth during the first and second period and provided color commentary alongside play-by-play voice, Mike Peck.
–Brandon Pirri and Phillip Danault led the IceHogs each with 5 shots on goal. Brian Fahey and Pete Leblanc both had 4 shots.
–That Danault can really fly. He’s all over the ice (in a good way). He won some face offs early although in the third period when Byron Froese was moved to his line Byron was taking more of those. It’s make the Blackhawks or more likely back to junior next season for Danault. He’s not all that far off from being that good however.
— Froese, who had been a healthy scratch for the past six contests, was a minus-2 in his return. The last time Froese dressed was also the last time before Friday that the IceHogs lost in regulation.
—Carter Hutton has started all of the past 18 IceHogs’ games he’s been on the roster for. In that time, he’s 12-3-0-2 with a 1.55 GAA and 94.3% save percentage. That dates back to February 24th in Rosemont, which was a day after his NHL contract with the Blackhawks became official. Salak has started one game during that stretch (a 4-3 loss at Houston), on March 16th while Hutton was on recall with the Blackhawks backing up Corey Crawford for a game in Dallas. Salak picked up the shootout win in relief of Hutton last Sunday in Milwaukee after Hutton was kicked out of that game for fighting in a secondary altercation in the brawl with the Admirals.
—Ben Youds has been fighting pucks and making bad decisions for a few weeks now but he really had a bad game on Friday night. He covers a lot of his mistakes with his hustle and determination. The fact its his first pro season out of college and he’s playing so many big minutes on this team since the trade of Brian Connelly night after night probably has something to do with it. Ted Dent has to keep going with him though with no other viable option for those minutes.
–Not sure what has gotten into Ryan Stanton all of a sudden? Stanton dropped the gloves for third time in five games after going two months without a fight. On Friday night he did it also knowing his coach was going to be relying on him and three other defenseman (Lavin, Fahey and Youds) for most of the game. We don’t get numbers but Fahey and Lavin had to be up around 28-30 minutes, which is rare in the AHL. Malone did wind up being the trigger-man on the game-winner but considering the circumstances that wasn’t a fair trade-off and Stanton should have let that one go.
–If you’re Simon Danis-Pepin you have to know your time in the Chicago Blackhawks organization is at its end. First Connor Goggin was signed out of nowhere (actually Dartmouth) and takes your spot in the lineup. Now Eric Baier comes in from Trenton of the East Coast league and is immediately slotted ahead of you on the depth chart by the decision makers. Of course, Danis-Pepin is an ECHL guy as well. Baier is a big guy, 6-4 and 225lbs, and a right-handed shot who isn’t a terrible skater. He didn’t play much on Friday but was on the ice with Stanton for the Monsters game-winning goal.
–Eric Baier’s older brother Paul, 27, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the third round of the 2004 NHL Draft. Paul Baier played three seasons in the AHL and mostly in the ECHL this season. The Kings drafted Paul two picks before the Red Wings selected Johan Franzen.
Eric Baier played four years at Providence College. There, he played a year and a half (07-08) with Joe Lavin before Lavin transferred to Notre Dame in late 2008. In the full calendar year before he could join the Golden Domers, Lavin played for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL. Lavin went on to captain Notre Dame in his senior season (10-11).
–Four former Blackhawks and IceHogs products were in the lineup for Lake Erie on Friday. Center Evan Brophey, forward Pete MacArthur and defenseman Danny Richmond and Mike Brennan.
–Evan Brophey’s 18 goals and 38 points in 69 games are good enough to lead the Lake Erie Monsters in scoring. Those totals double Brophey’s production (67gp, 10g, 9a) in his final season in the Blackhawks organization last year.